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My Japanese Inscriptions: Tokyo

March/April 2018

Japan, a place that has long governed my list of places to see and experience and I finally did! It was one of those dream destinations that was always on my mind. Dreaming of Tokyo, I often imagined neon streets, an energetic buzz that leaves you mesmerized, and the overall excitement of being in such an interesting new world to get lost in. It is everything that I imagined it to be; home to the fascinating, unusual, and bizarre. I noticed how the smallest and most everyday things are subtly different and Japanese in their own way! Overall, a visit to Tokyo most certainly implies a world of discoveries and stimuli for all the senses.

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My first glance at Tokyo!

We landed in Japan during the winter times, and it was freezing cold. Once we arrived in Shiodome, Minato, a redeveloped district known for it’s modern architectural design, we let ourselves get a little lost on the way to our hotel and it was already a sensory overload for me.

I couldn’t wait to explore this treasure trove of encounters and experiences!

On the following morning, we explored the area and went into a small convenience store called “Family Mart” to grab something fun to eat (also known as a Konbini in Japanese).

There were all sorts of interesting-looking snacks, desserts, pastries and bento boxes – and all were labeled in Japanese so it was impossible to understand if only from a cute cartoon drawing on the package. The store had virtually everything you need, from thoughtfully packaged meals to sandwiches. And almost anything I picked up was delicious. We used the Google Translate Camera app to point at the packaging and it would give us a general idea of the content which was really helpful. However, the fun part was randomly picking up a variety of snacks and trying them out for surprise! These mini marts became one of my favorite stops throughout our trip and every time I walked into one I was wide-eyed at the variety of items to try.

Some snacks I tried were clam-flavored ramen and a kind of dried fish and seasoned calamari, and there was even kiri-flavored ice-cream! My favorite part of walking into any Japanese convenience store is their “Hot meal station” next to every cashier for a “grab & go” snack. The photo below shows some rice buns with different fillings and Tsukune, which are tender Japanese chicken meatball skewers glazed in delicious seasoning.

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A Japanese convenience store with a variety of snacks

In every district, I have jotted down my main observations and initial encounters in the area.

Tokyo is divided into several districts, each with their own unique character and charm. Our very first district was Asakusa, where we visited the sacred grounds of the Sensoji Temple.

Getting around Tokyo

It is no doubt that Tokyo’s metro system will get you to many places, but it’s a labyrinth of subway lines. We got lost a few times before eventually getting the hang of it (thanks to my husband who mastered it like a BOSS! Without him I would get stranded 🙂

Japanese people

One aspect of Japan that I found striking is the sheer respect and politeness of Japanese people. From the courteous taxi drivers in their immaculately clean vehicles (with automatic doors that open and close!) to the humble department store workers and businessmen at the subway, I was quite shocked at the amount of genuine hospitality. There were many instances throughout our stay that reinforced this.

One great example was at the metro station, we were seemingly lost and attempting to find the correct subway line. Usually when that happened we would turn to a local for help. This time we approached a business man and he pointed us to line “8”. When we reached, we waited for the metro to arrive and after about 10 minutes we see the man running to our direction apologizing profusely that he was mistaken and the right line was “7”. The fact that he took the time and effort to come back and tell us this left me astonished! Another example was similar except that we asked help from a young college student. He whipped out his phone to search for answers and it really looked like he sincerely wanted to help us. He even missed his train!

I also remember another endearing instance when we were about to get some drinks from a vending machine and my husband accidentally dropped a pile of coins. Children nearby rushed to pick up the coins and give them to us. Where in the world do you see this act of politeness? Respect and etiquette are at the core of Japan and embedded in their culture.

Nostalgia in Japan?

One look at Japan’s traditional culture, technology, innovation and art made me realize that the Japanese actually strive for perfection in everything, which makes it such an orderly and organized nation. There is also an air of nostalgia that I couldn’t point my finger on. It could be the old-school Japan, and I guess I would say that a sense of nostalgia is even reflected in their manga, invoking a longing for the good old days.

ASAKUSA DISTRICT

Asakusa is known for the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo dating back to 645 AD called Sensoji. The path leading to the temple is also one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets called Nakamise Dori. When in Japan, I wasn’t really looking into touristed-out typical travel trinkets. I was more on the lookout for rare Japanese finds, be it handicrafts or only-in-japan traditional souvenirs.

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Toy Capsules (Gachapon in Japanese)

Another one of my favorite things to do was scout the toy capsule machines all around Tokyo, which are itself a cultural phenomenon. Believe it or not, each area has different editions with unique collectibles. Exploring the various miniature works of art in plastic such as capsuled mini food models, anime characters, keychains, and toys is a really fun experience and addicting in a way too. These were quite nostalgic for me because I remember my favorite childhood video game Shenmue where the lead character wondered the streets of Yokosuka, Japan, collecting toy capsules.

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Opened one of my toy capsules to find 551 Horai, which is a popular Asian rice bun outlet.

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A Japanese pickle store – Tsukemono

KIMONOS – THE TRADITIONAL GARMENT OF THE OLD EDO PERIOD

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Kimono rental shops are pretty much everywhere, and it’s always good to consider wearing an authentic kimono as you stroll the old streets of the Edo period. The intricacies that go into wearing one and the rainbow of choices that come in different patterns and colors was interesting to observe. One fact I learned from the lady working at a kimono rental shop was that you can “Level-up” your kimono gear, depending on the pattern and fabric that range from basic kimonos to more elaborate ones worn by Geishas or wedding ceremonies. All in all, dressing up in a kimono is an art by itself.

Owls (Fukuro) everywhere

One of the things I noticed was Japan’s obsession with owls, just like myself. I learned that there is some significance and meaning to owls in Japanese culture. Most if not all Japanese souvenir shops had owl trinkets, charms and owl figures almost as popular as Hello Kitty. Owls actually symbolize luck in Japan, and the word “Fukuro” for owls means “Good luck or fortune”.

20180312_121513                               Each colored owl symbolizes luck, protection or fortune

Arriving at Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple

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Japan’s ancient Buddhist Temple is called Senso-ji, considered to be a very spiritual place in Tokyo. It was crowded when we reached, and masses of people surrounded a cauldron producing a cloud of billowing incense smoke that visitors were wafting over themselves. People light up incense sticks and place them in the giant urn to make a wish before entering the temple ahead.

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Also, before entering the temple there is a fountain of purity. The streams of water are meant to provide spiritual cleansing before moving forward.

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Once in the temple, there are consistent rattling sounds coming from over the temple from people shaking metal containers with hopes of receiving a good fortune. I picked up a box as well and once satisfied with the shaking, I turned it over and a wooden stick came out of a small slit at the bottom. There were some characters written on it with which you have to match on the drawer in front of you. After spotting the correct drawer, I was lead to open it and receive my  “Omikuji” (fortune). I deciphered it, and I turned out to get a good fortune! Normally, if you get a positive reading you take the fortune back home with you, if not, you tie it on to a “Omikuji tree” at the temple and leave it behind.

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Japanese vending machines

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The Japanese have a strong affair with vending machines, and its no wonder as they really are a source of fascination due to the variety of items sold in them. They are very convenient and handy too, dispensing a range of cold and hot beverages with the cutest and most colorful packaging. My husband and I would always stop at one to grab ourselves a nice warm drink, he always got the hot coffee while I had tea with milk.

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The cutest bottle of water!

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Back to Shiodome, Minato

Pachinko Arcades: Gambling?

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A craze that I found in almost every corner were Japanese arcades known as “Pachinkos”. When we entered one, it looked like a form of gambling and the majority playing were middle-aged men in suits fixated on the screens of their machines which were blaring and making incessant noise. It almost seemed like they were oblivious to their surroundings and focusing solely on the game in front of them. I tried to understand what they were playing exactly, but all I could make out were flashy colors and random balls, it mostly resembled a pinball game. Honestly, I couldn’t stay in one for more than 3 minutes as the sounds were overwhelmingly loud and unpleasant. I guess when you’re so into the game you kind of block out the noise overtime.

White surgical masks: Protection or a long-standing trend?

You might always wonder why the majority of Japanese, especially from Tokyo, wear white masks like just another clothing garment and at first it may seem puzzling. In reality it is a social etiquette, either to block viruses or allergies or prevent yourself from spreading them to others. I also learnt from one Japanese that it helps battle the “hay fever” season caused by a specific Japanese cedar tree, therefore donning a mask helps alleviate the symptoms. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if masks are actually considered a fashion statement in Japan as there are all kinds of styles and colors sold everywhere.

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Japanese Tea: A way of philosophy

Tea is a Japanese cultural activity and custom that involves a ceremonial preparation and presentation of the Japan’s favorite powdered “Matcha” green tea, and there’s a whole philosophy behind it that helps one enjoy their tea through a relaxing experience.  It’s less about the drink and more about the appreciation of the nature and art of making the tea. When we entered an old tea shop, there were a wide variety of tea leaves with premium being the highest quality. The man working there offered to prepare a sample for us with his ceremony utensils, and the whole preparation looked like a form of mastery representing harmony, purity, serenity and respect.

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The Imperial Palace

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The Imperial Palace

The Imperial palace is set amidst beautiful traditional Japanese gardens and is the place where the Emperor of Japan resides. It was especially stunning during the season of Cherry Blossoms which we were very luck to witness! The entire grounds gave us a feel of ancient legacy.

The Enchanting Sakura: Shades of Pink

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It’s a lovely sight to witness when gardens and parks are blanketed with blossoms of pale pink, baby pink, and deep pink hues. This is when we knew it was the onset of Spring in Japan. The Imperial Palace was amongst the best spots for cherry-blossom-viewing. I hadn’t known prior to traveling to Japan, that there is more than one type of Sakura tree. There are actually over 600. It was certainly a dream come true to be walking amidst their magical beauty and a great memory I’ll cherish!

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A type of “Yellow Sakura”

Cherry blossoms are so iconic and loved all over the world, that the Japanese have an entire word for “looking at flowers” which is called “Hanami”. There are several “Hanami spots” throughout Japan to admire the blossoms.

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Hanami picnics – an ancient tradition and national pasttime

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Sakura flavored treats are also very common, with sakura flavored Starbucks Pink Milk Lattes to sakura-layered white chocolate Mille Feuille and Sakura-infused tea.

Ginza District

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Ginza is known as Shopping Heaven. You can find everything from high-end luxury brands for men’s and women’s fashion in multi-storied designer buildings to traditional Japanese goods ranging from stationary stores to expensive Japanese pottery shops.

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Cutting-edge galleries

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Tokyo in general has a lively art scene, but in Ginza in particular there are a variety of arts, antiques, and crafts for display in galleries which make for great spots for inspiration.

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Japanese glazed porcelain dolls

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The art of Japanese dolls

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Japanese Stationary: The 100-year stationary store

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If there’s another thing that Japan and I have in common, it’s our passion for stationary! In this digital age, I still go nostalgic for beautiful artful greeting cards and postcards. In Japan, there’s an entire century-old stationary store devoted just to stationary goods called Itoya. And of course, I went wild.

With over 7 floors, you can find your ideal ballpoint pen, make your very own customized notebook through a color, texture & thickness chart, home care goods, Japanese colored paper art works, and a whole floor dedicated to postcards, greeting cards and stickers. The stationary looks so cute, I wanted to get everything. Aside from the cuteness, Japanese stationary puts quality, design and functionality at the forefront.

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A greeting card portraying the famous Sagano Railway in Japan.

The original Sheseido Cosmetics Building

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Sheseido is huge in the beauty industry, and it’s personally one of my favorite Japanese cosmetic brands. That’s why spotting Ginza’s original Sheseido building of 9 floors got me excited! Starting with make up on the first floor followed by skincare on the second where I received a personalized beauty diagnostic. They have several stations devoted to various skincare needs, from anti-aging, moisturizing, serums and more. I also stopped by 2 more floors which had a hairdresser and photo make up studio. I stocked up on a lot of exclusive Japanese Sheseido make up and skincare after spending hours exploring their items which was a delightful experience 🙂

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Only a street away is an another entire building dedicated to a Sheseido bakery known as Sheseido Parlour. This is a fact I hadn’t previously known about, which is that Sheseido has it’s own line of baking goods that come in beautifully-packed containers. One of the most well-known items is their signature Sheseido cheesecake which was popularized in Ginza itself.

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Japanese beauty gadgets

Japanese beauty tools are everywhere, from innovations meant to exercise your face muscles, to spooky-looking masks, breast gymnastics massagers, nose beauty lifts to knee brightening foams.

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Sauna face mask. The mask is supposed to tense your muscles and make your face sweat, hence resulting in a slimmer face cut.

Aside from that, within every 3 meters of walking any street there are multiple drugstores with a dizzying number of beauty bottles, tonics, emulsions and packs at every corner. Skin conditioners, skin softening, deep cleansing are the main pillars of Japanese skincare regimes and they are known for their quality, effectivity and innovation.

I got to know a couple of traditional Japanese cosmetic brands as well, those of which use old Japanese beauty practices such as silkworm cocoons and the rich camellia oil for hair.

The Food Scene (My Favorite): Navigating Japan’s Food Wonders

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There’s hardly a corner in Tokyo that isn’t peppered with stalls, labels, posters and displays of food. I was mostly interested in eating like a local and trying out unusual things. We wondered the narrow streets of Ginza with a very wide range of restaurants. Japanese food is so diverse we wanted to have a bite of everything! There is much more to classic Japanese food than what we are used to having (like tempura, ramen, and sushi) as Japanese cuisine is steeped in culture and all about artistry. The Japanese make the most out of natural flavors and sparingly use any spices, fats, or red meats , therefore it is considered healthy and typical Japanese food tastes vastly different in texture and flavor when compared to other cuisines.

Initially we were on the lookout for a Yakitori Restaurant which serves traditional Japanese grilled skewers of meat and vegetables. However, we ended up in a different cozy restaurant by mistake which served Japanese “Shabu Shabu”. 

The Japanese “Fondue”: Shabu Shabu DIY cooking

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Upon entering, we were seated on a high-chair table resembling a bar which was lined with boiling “hot pots” of soup. The chef then served us a fresh spread of raw vegetables and thinly sliced A5 grade Wagyu beef.

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We were also given special utensils to make a sesame-based sauce for dipping. The fun part was being in total control of your ingredients once you start throwing them in to the steaming pot to cook.  When you drop in a slice of Wagyu it momentarily simmers and cooks within seconds before melting in your mouth. I loved this dining experience. It’s great for sharing, and it’s light and healthy.

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The chef demonstrating the Shabu Shabu for us

At first, the big spread of beef slices might come off as a large portion but it disappears before you even realize it. That’s how light it is! The guys seated next to us had those slices coming one after the other.

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Interviewed by Japanese TV

To our surprise, there was a camera crew present on sight at the restaurant as well. We stood out as foreigners and I guess they were intrigued by us. The interviewee and the cameraman approached us and asked if we wanted to participate in their show on Otaku TV by answering a couple of their questions about our Japanese dining experience as tourists. They  documented our dining experience and asked all kinds of questions ranging from how our food back in Kuwait compares, how we discovered Shabu Shabu, to what we enjoyed most about the whole experience. It was a very interested encounter! I’ve yet to receive the coverage from the TV station 🙂

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Japanese plastic food models (Sampuru)

Looking so good you could eat them

Strolling the streets of Japan, we would often find menu displays of “dish replicas” at restaurants which actually look highly realistic and very interesting to look at.

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They are so popular, that they come in keychains and have even turned into a fashion business with designs for accessories and phone cases!

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It’s a really interesting phenomenon unique to Japanese culture. The food models look like culinary art forms! The life-like replicas are actually not that far from reality, and the exquisite amount of details makes them perfect at giving you a very close idea of what your dish will look like. Picking out something to eat as we walk by a restaurant is like going through an art exhibition and there are actual craftsmen behind these models that paint and sculpture them to look as delicious as possible. Interestingly, plastic food models were invented by a Japanese man called Takizo Iwasaki in the 1800’s.

I can see why these cute-looking dishes and imitation of food aesthetics can turn into a collecting hobby as there is an enormous wide variety of them which are all tempting to have!

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Akiko Obata holds the Guiness record for the largest collection of food replicas! (taken from Google)

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Food illusions…

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There are Sampuru workshops around too where tourists can sculpt and paint their very own plastic food dish and master the art of faking it. It’s practically like a real kitchen where every element keeps the aspect of its original, except for the taste!

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A Sampuru workshop for kids

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     A ramen vending machine at a restaurant

The Sweet sides of Japanese: Wagashi & Dango

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In Japan, if you’re craving something sweet you are most likely to indulge in typical Japanese desserts. One of these is called Wagashi made out of Mochi (rice pounded into paste). With each season comes different flavors. Since I was in the Sakura season, I tried the Sakura mochi which is a type of Wagashi. It’s definitely an acquired taste I would say. The glutinous rice ball is wrapped with a Sakura leaf which has a pickled taste to it, while the rice is chewy and sweet with a savory bean paste filling.

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Another type of Wagashi

Most of the desserts are really pretty and colorful to look at!

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Back to Shiodome, Minato

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Japan’s tiny futuristic cubes in Shimbashi (Nakagin)

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While on a night time stroll in Shimbashi district, I decided to take my husband to see the famous unusual capsule concrete structure known in Japan. It looked quite spooky at night and had somewhat of a decaying facade but very cool nevertheless! At first, we tried to access it and when we inquired the security guard about it we assumed we could just pass by inside and have a look but he mentioned it being an apartment complex. So, these capsules are actually residences and few people live in them. Some have turned into offices as well. It was built in the 1970’s and the 70’s interior remains the same and during that time it was marketed as living quarters. The cubes were designed in such a way that they were meant to be detached and replaced with new ones. People back then perceived the capsule building as an optimistic symbol of a Utopian sci-fi ideal. Sadly, what the structure used to represent has sadly been forgotten and now it stands as solely an icon of the past.

Japan’s Museum of Advertising

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This museum was one of our many highlights and told us so much about the history of Japanese advertising. The very first thing that impressed me was the museum’s method of presenting and displaying the information, which was very engaging, catchy, and innovative.

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The first room featured decorative advertisements and actual artifacts of the Edo Period. The practice of handing out flyers and promoting business venues was already popular back then and overtime the museum shows how these marketing tools have adapted to changing times.

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Samples of old promotional flyers and posters from the Edo Period

You might think advertising wasn’t so advanced back then but the museum proves you otherwise. People in the past were actually very creative with their tools in order to visually attract customers to their shops, by using handcrafted shop signs to perfect the art of advertising.

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Different types of ADs were like various forms of art

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The very first AD for the famous Japanese cosmetics brand Sheseido

Then came a wonderful display giving insight into the newspaper period in Japan, followed by the major introduction of mass media such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines.

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A fascinating part of the museum was the 2000’s, which showed how items and products changed with society. Different ADs portrayed the evolution of societal ideologies as new technological platforms emerged. It also showed the way consumer culture and lifestyles evolved in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to the present 21st century. The whole museum is like one giant timeline. My favorite part was a large screen displaying ADs from the past to present. It really changes your perspective when you look at how advertising accelerated throughout the years.

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OWL CAFE (AKIFA FUKUROU): A CRAZE UNIQUE TO JAPAN

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Owls…the mysterious creatures of the night featured in tales of magical realism. In literature and filmography, they are majestic creatures imbued with mystery. With their somewhat enchanting calls that echo through the night and charismatic faces, most cultures hail owls as symbols of wisdom, good luck and fortune. The Japanese word for owls is Fukurou, which literally translates to luck.my long-time favorite animal for as long as I can remember. As an owl collector (of figurines, trinkets, postcards, paintings and so on), I eventually found myself in an Owl Cafe!

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 Japan isn’t short of bizarrely-themed cafes. From Maid Cafés, the world’s first cat café and even hedgehog cafes, at the heart of Tokyo lies Japan’s popular Owl Café, Akiba Fukurou, which is home to 25 distinct species of owls. In the world’s most hi-tech metropolis at Akihabara street, I was about to re-connect with nature in the most unusual way. As an owl lover, this was going to be an immensely interesting and special one-of-a-kind experience.

Being as popular as they are, I was eager to successfully secure a spot at the café which meant an hour of up-close and personal time with these beautiful birds.

Before entering we were given a brief tutorial on owl-handling with an adorable introduction to the owl family tree. We entered a relaxed little mellow café with serene owls tethered on to long perches around the walls, some snoozing while others widely alert of their surroundings.

Each owl has a name and presumably a personality ranging from social, defensive, quiet, to moody. One of the rules cautioned to us was to remain as quiet as possible with no sudden movements, therefore everyone had to resort to whispering. We were told that we could gently pat them on the head or beaks with our pinkie fingers.

Utterly transfixed by the whole bizarre experience, it was time for everyone to select a favorite to hold and interact with. There are several baby owlets to much bigger and intimidating ones for every comfort level and every owl fan. I was particularly drawn to the white owls. Apparently the one I fancied had quite a bit of a defensive attitude, as told by the coach. Therefore, I took back my decision and picked another white one that was friendlier and relatively social. The coach gently took him off from the bar he was resting on and with his help carefully placed him on my arm. By that time I totally forgot that we were in a café and didn’t even end up ordering a drink! (couldn’t imagine holding an owl on one arm and a drink in my hand on the other).

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The Owl Cafe

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The beautiful owl I made friends with!

 

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The whole encounter had a very calming effect, and I felt a special connection being so close to a beautiful and wild predator staring right at me with curiosity. It seemed so comfortable on my shoulder, that I was suddenly taken aback when it decided to pounce on top of my head and stay there! I tried not to think of it as much of a big deal and the coach asked if I was okay. With time, he said it would be better to take him away as it could get dangerous with those claws! Overall, I would go as far as saying it was a transcendent one-hour experience. As an owl fanatic, I can totally check this off my list now!

Dangerously good: Beard Papa’s cream puffs

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Whenever we entered the subway on the way to our next route, we always walked passed an irresistible aroma of vanilla and bakery. It was impossible not to lure you in. These are the fresh and creamy puffs made by “Beard Papa’s”. Our senses were automatically overwhelmed by the warm, sugary smell. My husband and I would instantly turn to each other with that look of “Are you craving one too?” I originally thought they are Japan-based but actually they are a bakery in New York and I think someone should bring the franchise to Kuwait for me to get my fix every now and then! The first ones we tried were the cookies & cream puffs. Light, flaky, crunchy and sweet on the outside, and creamy and luscious on the inside with whipped cream and custard fillings that overall tastes like a homemade creation.

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AKIHABARA ELECTRIC TOWN:

THE GEEKY SIDE OF TOKYO

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The one district that we were overly excited to visit is the famed Akihabara, known for being a haven of games, electronics, gadgets, anime, manga and model kits. At first sight, the place feels overwhelming as your senses are assaulted in all directions from the colorful billboards emitting neon glows and Japanese pop flaring from screens on high-rise buildings. There’s certainly a lot to take in!

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There are numerous shops with Nintendo merchandise, I went crazy for Super Mario!

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There are huge electronics stores such as Softmap and laox.

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One of our visits included a stop at Super Potato, known for retro video games and gadgets with unique vintage finds, it’s practically a candy shop for geeks offering vintage game cartridges with rows of retro consoles,  All in all, it’s the ultimate place to experience Geek culture at full force.

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On the way through Akihabara there are toy arcades at every stop, which became our newfound addiction in Japan. These are located in Game Centers, featuring “Crane machines” offering a chance to snag limited edition toys and figurines of well-known anime characters which make great souvenirs to take back home. To catch one, it’s surprisingly difficult but so satisfying when we finally did! (mostly with a generous and friendly helping hand from the staff working there!).

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One of the little things I fell in love with are also their model kits. These are small packaged house or stores that you need to assemble yourself. It takes some precision and persistence to finish the entire model but the results are simply amazing and satisfying and look great on a shelf!

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Maid Cafes 

If you are in Tokyo, you will inevitably stumble upon the famous Maid Cafes. As we strolled the streets of Akihabara, we were cheerfully greeted by a girl dressed in a maid costume. Full of energy, she guided us to the cafe upstairs where we were greeted by more waitresses dressed up as maids who jumped with enthusiasm once we entered.  Adopting child-like anime voices, cutesy gestures and overly girly behavior, the waitresses mostly spoke in Japanese and rarely a word of English. As we were seated, they handed us a menu of cute-looking desserts and bunny ears to wear. It really did feel like we were being served by characters from a manga comic! We chose to have some ice cream which was adorably decorated with playful designs and messages.

At the end, we were  asked to take a polaroid photo with the maids for memories, which is dated and signed by the maid.  However, in general no photos were allowed to be taken within the cafe. Overall it was a very unusual and funny experience. My husband and I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time and enjoyed it a lot!

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Pablo’s CheeseCake: Japan’s cheesecake cult

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Very popular in Japan are Pablo cheesecakes. These freshly prepared cheese tarts originated in Osaka and come in classic cheese, matcha flavor, chocolate and Sakura (and probably many more seasonal flavors). The first time we heard of them was online, as it seems that they actually went viral on social media. Once you take a bite, it’s gooey and creamy in the inside. There’s usually a long queue for these in every branch!

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Sightseeing with Mario Karts

Wishing to live the the real-life Mario Kart experience? Tokyo offers a private go-karting Mario-themed tour. We didn’t have an international driving license with us at the time otherwise we would have definitely tried the experience!

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Shinjuku District: The city that never sleeps

Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku’s Night Life District

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Laser lights, electronic music, and a crazy robotic show. We ascended up the techni-colored psychedelic stairway and took our seats with our flashing light bulb juice.

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At the beginning, a dancing troupe made their grand entrance with drums, followed by complex choreographed dancing replete with giant robots and special effects all of which resembled a Japanese festival of robots.

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I guess you could say it’s the Moulin Rouge of Japan. The cabaret-style show is themed around the future of technology, with performers dressed as robots and moving vehicles and large-scale robots move on stage using a remote control. The stage was pretty tight, which meant the machines were very close to the audience. It was a joyfully chaotic atmosphere of non-stop madness and entertainment! It was definitely a one-of-a-kind thrilling experience.

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Japanese Artisan Bakeries

During our time in Japan, we were in for an unexpected treat; Japanese pastries. The European-inspired baked goods actually made it to the land of rice and before visiting Japan, pastries wasn’t something that came to mind. Buying bread at bakeries in Japan comes in self-service style, and the array of offerings are really delicious. For breakfast, we loaded our trays with  choices of quiche, salmon and cream cheese tarts, custards puffs, to sausage rolls all freshly-made and packaged to enjoy on the go or during a quick trip in the metro.

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Ueno District

Ueno Zoo: The Oldest Zoo in Japan

Known for it’s giant beloved pandas and urban zoological park, Ueno Zoo dates back to 1880 and houses 2500 animals with 450 species. Actually, it was pouring rain when we got there!

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The most unusual animals for me were the gorillas and the elusive panda. When we reached the zoo, we immediately caught sight of a really long line queuing up to see a nursery of panda cubs. There was no way to get in line as you needed to purchase tickets in advance and they were already sold out. So we moved on to the section which houses the giant panda, brought all the way from China. Again, it was in a very far and glass-enclosed space that we hardly had a good look at it, also aside from the fact that others were also trying to catch a glimpse.

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Spirited away at the Ghibli Animation Museum : Hayao Miyazaki

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Tickets to the museum are extremely limited and it was hard to get it. The museum is dedicated to the studio’s work and the beautiful world of Japanese animation.

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Ever since I watched Spirited Away and House of the Fireflies I instantly became a big fan of Ghibli Studios. It’s a wonderful work of art on imagination and storytelling and truly a treasured gem in cinematography. Anything Ghibli related I instantly bought as a souvenir! One of my favorite things is the paper theatre, which is a paper craft kit that recreates famous scenes of various characters by assembling together laser cut paper parts.

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Odaiba District: Tokyo’s artificial Island

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The man-made Island on Tokyo Bay houses many shopping malls and entertainment districts. I personally loved Odaiba, it was one my favorite districts which I found to have elements of futuristic, unique, and even strange.

One of the first things we noticed was a giant replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty overlooking the bay with a rainbow bridge sweeping across a view of Odaiba’s skyline.

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The Shamisen

When we just arrived, there was a booth with a lady dressed in traditional Japanese attire teaching a little boy the Japanese guitar. As we stood there, the lady beckoned to us to try it too. In my hands, I held a 3 stringed instrument known as Shamisen which is a type of Japanese guitar. It is said to be heard in most traditional Japanese songs in Kabuki theaters and Geisha performances. Resembling a banjo, the strings are made of silk thread contributing to it’s unique sounds. It is actually quite easy to play once I got the hand of it. It takes a degree of good muscle memory and rhythm to get it right!

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Sega Joypolis: Tokyo’s largest indoor theme park

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One place to be completely immersed is Joypolis, a really fun entertainment district. With the latest Virtual Reality attractions where you can take down attacking zombies, indoor rides, to many more thrilling horror games. One of the aspects I enjoyed in this place most is traditional Japanese horror. Their culture is replete with horrors, and they have a library of ghost tales, monsters, and spirits to draw upon.

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The original Japanese Resident Evil experience.

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One of my favorite games: Ace Attorney

Miraikan: The National Museum of Emerging Science & Technology

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The geo-sphere is the symbol of the museum. Made up of LED screens, it displays the most updated state of the earth as it is seen from space in real-time. Only one of it’s kind in the world.

Miraikan is the place where we experienced Japan’s cutting-edge technology. There are over 200 exhibits that are overseen and designed by active scientists. Everywhere you look, people (including children) are focused and engaged. From issues faced by our planet Earth to solutions to better living, Miraikan is a source of scientific inspiration, excitement and exploration.

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You can ride this personal mobility device called the Uni-Cub by Honda. You can use it to move around the museum!

Robots: Our future

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The museum also has several showcases of android robots. One of them is an Otonaroid, which is a hybrid of a human and android! They are eerily life-like, and a real person is used a template to create them. She can move her eyes and blink, make eyebrow movements, sync her lips to audio, and replicate other human facial expressions. From their smooth silicon skin to eloquent articulations, some of these robots are even used to help customers at museums, shoppings malls and airports.

Japanese robotics expert, inventor, and professor in Osaka University at Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Hiroshi Ishiguro says he uses research on human interaction and data on what differentiates humans and robots by examining the question of “what is emotion, what is awareness, and what is thinking.”

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Thought-provoking questions by scientists

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A fascinating exhibition we enjoyed called “Odors fill the world”. It draws on the most recent research on our sense of smell. Visitors can actually smell a number of odors on display and learn about the mechanisms through which our noses capture scents. Odors range from stinky ones to much more pleasant ones.

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The Space & Exploration section

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Astronauts’ food

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Time for lunch

After a fun and educational time, we walked to a nearby popular shopping mall called Aqua City to choose from a variety of restaurants (love this part!).

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We sat at a traditional/modern restaurant overlooking Odaiba’s skyline and ordered some soba noodles with a side of soup and Japanese grilled skewers (Yakitori) with a grilled rice ball (Yaki Onigiri).

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Bite-sized Yakitori of mushrooms, minced chicken, fish and meat.

Soba noodles a very a historic Japanese dish and the practice of making them is centuries old. Made from Buckwheat, they are high in nutrients and low on fat giving it a distinctive earthy flavor and can be eaten either hot or cold.

Yakitori are charcoal-grilled and one of the most popular ways to each them is from different parts of a chicken such as liver, heart, wings and breast which are brushed with a special sauce before grilled.

The Yaki Onigiri rice balls are a national snack favorite and it’s said to be found in every Japanese kid’s school lunchbox. This snack goes back to Samurai times, when the Samurai carried Onigiri balls in bamboo leaves. The fire adds a crisp to the rice creating a delicious crust!

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Gundam

A jaw-dropping experience was the life-sized Gundam statue, one of Odaiba’s biggest attractions. I was surprised at the sheer size of the full scale statue which stands at 18 meters tall.

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I think it would have been really cool if Gundam demonstrated some movements to make it look even more realistic! I am sure with Japan’s technology, they will eventually figure out how to get it to walk!

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On the Way to Toyota City Museum

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Part car showcase, part amusement center and part automobile museum, the place explores the various facets of Toyota’s automobile brand. The entire point of the center is to look, ride, and feel the cars.  I am not much of an automobile enthusiast, however I did enjoy the museum’s “History Garage” section displaying vintage cars from the 1950’s to 1970’s, chronicling Toyota’s past.

I liked the overall feel of the interior decor showcasing the selection of cars. It is a walk-through exhibition fashioned in a way to resemble the streets of a small town in 1950’s America with similar evocative settings. The smallest details were taken into consideration, with shop window displays of retro books and children’s toys, a vintage coke vending machine, and even a replica of an old Japanese home. It was interesting to notice all the detailing of the exhibition which added a lot of authenticity to the overall place.

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An old Japanese home in the 1950’s

Another good morning in Odaiba

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Tulip Time

Apart from the beautiful cherry blossom season that comes with Spring, there is another flower festival known in Odaiba that is a highly notable spring wonder. The promenade park becomes home to 20,000 planted tulips in full bloom. The flower beds are are really beautiful and I’ve never seen so many tulips in my life in one place!

I learned that Tulips are considered to be the luxury flower of Japan available only to the elite in the past.

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Roppongi Hills District

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Street Art – A Giant Spider called Maman

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One of the best views from the deck of Mori Tower, offering a 360 vista of Tokyo.

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From Mori Tower, we visited the Mori Art Museum, which focused on contemporary Asian and international art through innovative exhibitions of modern art.

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A quick lunch

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Yokohama China Town

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If there was one word to assign to China Town, it would be FOOD. We did get the feeling like we had just wandered into China and the most fun part was browsing the expansive area of bright Chinese shops and temples tucked in between all the bustle.  Everywhere we looked there were steaming buns, dim sums and noodles!

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Most restaurants had a dizzying array of menu displays of with various styles of specialty Chinese cuisine.

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To Kyoto…Chapter 2

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Inequality and Feminism in Kuwait

I would like to address an issue, or rather, misconception that I commonly hear when it comes to the topic of inequality between men and women. This topic seems to agitate both genders, especially in a seemingly patriarchal society such as Kuwait. Male-dominated societies are most prevalent particularly in the Middle East, which is where I live and that is why I am going to refer to this region the most.

So far, I’ve heard of many definitions and views on inequality and the topic has been discussed repeatedly. But, I would like to explore it myself and voice my personal stance on this subject.

Gender inequality, which is not synonymous with feminism, advocates that women should share the same opportunities and respect as men. Wait a minute, let me rephrase that! Men AND women should share the same opportunities and respect within society. I had to make that clarification because even with the term Gender Equality, we still tend to refer to women when in fact it means equal opportunities for both genders and overall not letting any form of “sexism” act as a constraint in a social or cultural context.

Some men would argue that if women want equality, then they should change the tires themselves if their car breaks down, carry heavy bags on their own without mens’ help, or start doing other roles that are usually dictated to men. Yes, men have said that! That already is a misconception itself because inequality doesn’t emphasize physical equality as that enters biology. That’s all common courtesy. There will always be differences between both sexes, you can’t make them exactly the same in everything and this is also hardly the case in Kuwait. Men in general are wired differently, but I don’t need to tell you that. Men and women are different sides of the same coin.

What’s actually meant of it is, why is a man preferred for a standard office job over a woman? I’ve been faced with that on one occasion from a reputable telecommunications company in Kuwait and they even admitted that they prefer a man for the Marketing role. Although in other cases I would personally never agree to work for a female boss and prefer men (there’s just too much unnecessary drama, jealousy, competitiveness and snake-like behavior but that’s a different story). Women want equally the same strong if not stronger career as men, and that’s great. But then again, if a strong career to support a family is NOT what a man is – what is? If I continue down this path of discussion, the blog post will read like a book.

Also, why is a Kuwaiti woman who smokes still considered indecent? Like inhaling a roll of tobacco somehow defines who she is and her morals. There are some things like this that just don’t make sense and shouldn’t be judged upon. There are more examples that are ingrained in our society and we sometimes stop questioning them altogether because they are internalized by many. It seems that even with discussions about gender equality, women seem to be the main focus and that’s why feminism exists.

Men aside, here come the women with their feminism. At first, I was wondering why females who claimed the title of “feminists” seem to be automatically associated with “man-haters” when in fact, feminism is such a broad term. But then I realized that there’s a growing number of women here who actually believe in this definition. They are usually young women who are upset about the other gender and have either never found luck in love, faced failed relationships and had bad encounters with men. It has turned in to some kind of trend as I see it more often through conversations on social media where they are now constantly dropping the “F-bomb”. Suddenly, men become the bad guys and they advocate that they don’t need one at all in their life and should be thrown from a cliff! To each their own, you just haven’t found the right one, so stay calm and hold your horses! We live in this world in harmony, no gender is more irrelevant or unwanted than the other.

Also, why should women have to shave for men? I didn’t know that was done solely to please them actually. All of a sudden, these women from around the world start coming out with hairy legs as if to reclaim their rights to unshaven body parts. I mean, it really comes down to aesthetics and hygiene at the end of the day. You can go ahead and stop shaving, no one is forcing you to! You have just internalized the concept yourself, just as we have internalized that dresses and skirts are for women.

The constant bashing of men and blaming them for so many problems is equally as concerning and even silly because it’s generalizing and misusing the term “feminism”. Perhaps some use it as a cover for misandry? I really don’t know. However, it’s clear that women’s specific views on these issues are rooted deeply in their own personal and direct experiences that they immediately take out on the entire male population. I wonder, if a man does decide to help you with your flat tire, would you see it as an act of courtesy? Or is it a sexist insult to her strength and competence? That’s why I say that feminism is such a broad term that is misinterpreted by many and has devolved into something it’s not.

Regardless of the individual feminists who do in fact hate men, feminism if distilled down to it’s core in a much broader sense, isn’t even about being equal to men or stepping up to achieve what men have and trying to be “stronger” than them. It focuses solely on women, their liberation all over the world from the harsh misogyny that continues to harm and oppress them. Indeed, women have gained a lot of rights in the past century, but still aren’t held in the same regards as men. Women had no right to vote, a lot of things were and still are considered shameful if a women does them, and until now, some women can’t leave the house un-chaperoned by a man. They still do lack a lot of basic rights in under-developed countries. The male superiority is still there in many occasions, I’m not denying it or complicit of it. Times have changed though especially in my home country, Kuwait, which is deemed “most democratic” of all it’s Middle Eastern neighbors and generally women aren’t oppressed or that disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t existing flawed societal standards and ideologies especially considering that its only been 15 years since women have been granted the right to vote which is quite recent!

I don’t know what kind of feminism is running rampant nowadays, but it certainly isn’t the feminism that’s meant to make women more independent or empowered as done by female activists fighting for a worthy cause. Young women now champion petty things and call it being a feminist which in modern terms comes off as anti-male. Being bitter about the whole situation also doesn’t make women any more empowered or happy!

Photo Diary Part 2: Wandering the streets of Kuwait’s Old Souk, Mubarakiya

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A bookshop with old magazines, publications, and comics that date back to the 40’s.

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The cookware market

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Antique shop

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One of Kuwait’s oldest mosques

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Mosque’s exterior

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This mosque dates back to 1776 and is considered Kuwait’s oldest mosque around! Masjid Al-Haddad.

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Here it is!

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Tea pots

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Getting ready for National & Liberations days

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Just another cat with piercing yellow eyes!

Are you really a “Food Blogger”?

It seems that with the ongoing rise of social media, particularly Instagram, everyone feels the need to call themselves an expert on something.

When was the last time anybody ever just simply posted a random moment from their life? Those casual, candid and spontaneous captures? Most if not all people are losing sight of what Instagram was originally about. Honestly, I miss that about social media myself. Now, it has become a playground for advertising and self-promotion, to the point that I get physically nauseated at the endless scrolling and sponsored posts passing me by.

It’s not ALL bad though. Instagram can be a good source of information, a way to share beautiful photography, and connect. But all these good things are being replaced by marketing, online shopping, and some kind of indirect promotion to the point that people have ceased to become just people, instead, they want to become walking advertisements and constantly try to project a certain image of themselves that they can later sell and earn money for. They can do that if they want to, but why does every single simpleton and joe have to become that now? Let it happen naturally. Just do what you love. Don’t force it and pretend to be someone you’re not.

This leads me to the title of my post. It’s ridiculous how some social media users try hard to appear as an expert on a topic, just to earn trust from their followers and potential brands. There are “experts” on fashion, food, sports, and whatnot. Some people can be talented in these areas and there is nothing wrong with showcasing their passion towards a field. They could be professionals or just serious hobbyists. But what does it even say about society when it’s reached to the extent that influence becomes more powerful than expertise? It appears that your status (number of followers) becomes increasingly more important than knowledge. On the other side of the spectrum of professionals, there are those who don’t belong where they claim to be, and you will see what I mean further ahead. I am mainly going to focus on food because that is the current trend I am seeing.

If you’re living in Kuwait, you are probably aware of the huge amount of foodies here. Food is a craze in the country, the dining scene is exploding, and eaters are hungry to try the rising number of new restaurants. With that, there’s a volume of “self-proclaimed” food bloggers. Now, let’s dissect what this really means.

If you look up anything about food reviewers, you would mostly likely find that they are professional journalists usually with a degree in Culinary Arts that write for a large publication. They understand how to write skillfully about the flavors, sights, and smells of what they are eating, which is NOT easy, and they tend to do this for a living. They are good at critiquing the meal in front of them and describing the complexities of a dish and it’s ingredients.

Now that we are clear on that, let’s backtrack to the food bloggers on Instagram, as there is a big difference. Since when does having a Nikon or Canon in hand, a huge appetite, and a social media account, make you a “food reviewer”? You can be a personal food blogger which entails keeping a journal about the food you cook at home, what you enjoy eating, or about the restaurants you are visiting. As long as you know how to “write” about it well, then yes, it’s called blog because you are storytelling.  If you’re just posting appetizing photographs, and placing a rating of a restaurant with information on what you ate, this is NOT a food blog nor is it a food review, even if its coming from a good place within you because you love food. What are these people then? They don’t know how to write about what they are reviewing, yet they want to be perceived as experts on what they are eating and expect to be received this way in the eyes of the online public.

Ok, you enjoy food and are crazy about eating, so am I! You can definitely share your love for food however, please just don’t act like a “food connoisseur”. Mind you, thousands of people are following these guys and viewers actually take your word for it when you attempt to critique a restaurant like a judge on “The Next Big Chef”.  Why should I trust your restaurant review when you are working in a corporate office somewhere in the day and in the night, haunt for dining places to “review?”

Who is this stranger claiming to be a food blogger? What is the meaning of what you are sharing? And you have thousands of followers! This also goes to show that visuals alone SELL. Nowadays, thats the first thing that people care about when they order something, even myself. I always prefer menus with photos. But thats not the entire point!

Let me get to my second point now. These so-called “food bloggers” approach restaurants and even high-end ones from luxury hotels, asking to be invited to “review” the menu. They expect to come in free, and on top of that demand to get paid. When I worked at a certain company, I dealt with some of the food bloggers in Kuwait occasionally and some of them have an inflated ego with self-entitlement. They are actually asking to be paid for their “expertise”.  There was a particular, rather popular, Kuwaiti food blogger I dealt with who, on the first few invites, accepted to come and dine and not charge for his “services” as “a favor”. Please. After those first couple of times, he literally began to angrily request that we invite him to the more expensive restaurants and demanded to be paid. Seriously, who do you think you are? He actually made a big fuss about it! All he does is post a quality photo of the places he eats at, puts a restaurant bio, opening times, and a few words about what he ordered. Usually, we would do follow up calls as well to ask about the dining experiences, and he had the audacity to nitpick the dishes he ate like some kind of pro. If I didn’t like a dish, let’s say the meat was slightly undercooked or rubbery, of course I would point it if out as feedback to the restaurant too, as any customer would. But you are a “food blogger” with thousands of followers who is sharing your opinion like you have a license to be referred to as a food critic.

I have shared plenty of food reviews on my blog but I don’t call myself a food reviewer or blogger because I’m not. I’m simply sharing my opinion of an experience, just like with anything I liked or enjoyed. People like to read about opinionated pieces. But at what point does one demand to be paid to write just an opinion with no professional culinary background and expect to be credited as a food blogger? That’s the equivalent of a deaf person claiming to appreciate good music. You simply don’t know how to respect true gastronomy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you even knew how to cook, yet you tear down a restaurant with a single post or tweet criticizing a PROFESSIONAL CHEF! Next, you will go to a Michelin-starred restaurant or try a cuisine not native to you and nitpick what you ate there too without even understanding what you are eating for the first time, because you don’t have the experience nor gastronomic capacity to be a consultant on food. Actual food reviewers travel globally to experience a wide variety of flavors and cuisines. They have a scope to rely on which is called experience.

So many of Kuwait’s bloggers are also called “innovators”. Taking an already well-known Korean concept called a “Mukbang” to your country for instance, is not an innovation nor are you a trend setter. You are simply following an already existing trend which doesn’t make you a leader. It also doesn’t take much talent or innovation to chew and swallow a feast in front of the camera and broadcast it to people. Viewers enjoy that because it makes them hungry and it feeds their indulgences, I enjoy watching them myself! You just take a foreign idea from abroad, implement it at the right place and time, and voila! Maybe you are the first to introduce it where you live, but again, it’s an existing idea that you didn’t even re-introduce in any new way. And the same applies to pretty much every so-called idea. If you watch any travel channel with Travel & Food programs, you will notice that those hosting the shows are professional chefs and journalists whose main goal is to explore the local culture and it’s food, and ultimately they go back to their kitchen to implement what they’ve learnt from this experience while ALSO adding their own twist and character to the dish. They are experimenting with the original recipe, and using their knowledge to do so.

In my opinion, you would have more credit if you actually stuck to what you already know and what you are genuinely good at. Don’t be hungry for followers and money.  Either these huge number of followers are unaware and aloof of what they are seeing or they simply don’t care and have become numb to the legion of photos on Instagram. Again, I am referring mainly to Kuwait where I live, and this is what I’ve observed. It’s surprising as well, that with such a prominent food scene, the number of self-proclaimed food reviewers outweigh the quality ones (if there are any!). If you think of food blogging or food reviewing as just a fun and leisurely pursuit, I don’t agree with you. You are just a food enthusiast who loves to gobble up food and photograph it.

News flash! There is more to food blogging and reviewing than eating 🙂

 

Photo Diary Part 1: Wandering the corners of Kuwait’s Old Souk, Mubarakiya.

I’ve always loved strolling the streets of the old souk, especially in the early hours. No matter how many times I’ve been there, Mubarakiya always has interesting little corners and scenes to discover and capture every time. That’s what I love about it!

If you keep your eyes peeled and are mindful of the surroundings, you’d be surprised at how many details and moments are hidden in the everyday life of this souk.

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A shop selling cookware

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Coffee break in a shop selling Prayer Beads (Misbah).

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Mubarakiya’s signature mural gives it a youthful and modern touch in the midst of an old souk.

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Reflecting on something… in a perfume shop.

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Accessories for Prayer Beads

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The endless variety of Prayer Beads

My favorite Kuwaiti food place so far – Amiti Noora

If you visit any mall, open any delivery app, or look up the food scene on social media, you’ll probably notice there are a growing number of Kuwaiti restaurants opening up.

People’s typical all-time favorite restaurant for Kuwaiti food has always been Freij Sweileh. Whenever anybody asks about the best place to enjoy Kuwaiti cuisine, this is usually the first restaurant that comes up. In my opinion, it’s not the only top one out there.

I had a period of “Kuwaiti food” obsession where I had an unusual appetite for Kuwaiti dishes almost all the time. This is when I resorted to feeding my craze by searching up  Kuwaiti restaurants for food delivery; and there are tons of them. Every now and then I would notice yet another new Kuwaiti restaurant featured on Carriage or Talabat. Some of the ones I’ve tried and enjoyed to date are Seventies, Emberech, and Maryam Brothers. There’s also a new place called Kharoof, that specializes in baby lamb Kabsa.

But Kuwaiti food is not that diverse. There is really not much room for creativity. So you might think, what difference does it make where I choose to have Kuwaiti cuisine? After all, it’s mainly rice with chicken, lamb or fish.

When you are accustomed to eating Kuwaiti cuisine though, you do tend to see and taste the differences in the way the food is spiced, cooked, and presented. The rice could be more aromatic, the fish or meat more tender, the type of hashwa used (stuffing of herbs and spices) more interesting and flavorful. These all play a role in coming together to form and represent the perfect traditional Kuwaiti dish.

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The other day at the Avenues Mall we decided to try the  new restaurant Amiti Noora (Auntie Noora), which recently opened only a week ago. I always associated Kuwaiti cuisine with comfort food and I got this impression from Amiti Noora, which according to their philosophy, is about welcoming people to indulge in home-made style Kuwaiti food cooked with love.

The sound of two oud players calls upon the attention of hungry diners at the entrance. The place is quite cozy and pleasant, with touches of Kuwaiti decor but at the same time incorporating foreign elements.

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For our first visit we tried the breakfast. We started with a cheese platter (not typically Kuwaiti) cheese sambosas, and flatbread with halloum, tomatoes and zaatar oil.  Kuwaiti food doesn’t have appetizers, so most of the starters were inspired from the Middle East. We were also served bread with a variety of spice pastes such as Maabouch and achar (pickles).

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I should point out the dough on their flatbread was outstanding. It’s not that easy to find good-made bread here in Kuwait, but this was just so well done.

I was craving balaleet at the time and I was happy to find it there. Normally, you don’t find a Kuwaiti restaurant that serves every kind of traditional Kuwaiti dish, but Amiti Noora does which gives it a check mark.

I was so eager to dive into the balaleet that I forgot to take a photo! To those who don’t know, balaleet are sweetened noodles with saffron and rosewater, complimented by a salty omelette on the side.

For dessert, we went for a milky saffron pudding topped with pistachios and sprinkles of darabeel (a type of crisp cinnamon wafer) and Kuwait’s indulgence called lgaimat – my guilty sugary and syrupy pleasure! When I see these on any menu I can’t help but order some.

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lgaimat

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Milk pudding

On our next visit we tried the lunch, which turned out to be just as delightful. We ordered Gaboot, a type of stew consisting of Kuwaiti dumplings stuffed with onions and raisins together with chunks of soft meat, and a side of fragrant white cinnamon rice. We also got the machboos with lamb neck. The lamb neck fell apart with a melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. The gaboot is not a dish that people normally make at home anymore, it’s a very old dish, so having this authentic recipe available at restaurants is nice. All in all, everything was delicious!

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Machboos with neck of the lamb and hashwa on the side.

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Gaboot

I enjoyed the dining experience at Amiti Noora, and I am actually eager to return to try their seafood. I will be sharing an update on my blog post until then!

 

The Ukrainian Virsky National Dance Ensemble – First time in Kuwait!

The other day I was reading the Arab Times newspaper and found an article announcing an upcoming show by the famous Ukrainian Virsky Folk Dance performers. 

Of course, I got very excited and immediately jumped at the chance to attend! I have always been keen on experiencing the culture of my Ukrainian half, considering that I had never seen a live performance of a National Ukrainian dance and especially one that’s showcased by an ensemble historically famed and celebrated for over 80 years.

As part of their 80th anniversary the Virsky ensemble, which were founded in 1937, have set out on a world tour. They were visiting Kuwait for the very first time and I was so happy to be part of the union of two of my cultures – Kuwait as the host and Ukraine as the guest to my home! Prior to that, the ensemble had been a guest to almost 80 different countries and has won several international prizes.

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The event was held at Abdulhussain Abdulretha Theater and it was already halfway packed once we got there and completely full by the time the show started.

It was incredibly beautiful. The handmade embroidered costumes, the perfect choreography of complete harmony, the acrobatic skills, the great virtuosity, the spirit of it all, just everything! It was so lively, passionate, vibrant and moving. I could really feel the soul and history of the Ukrainian culture and it made me so proud. I was at the edge of my seat the entire time!

There were a series of different performances that showcased dances from various regions of Ukraine and the traditional diversity was impressive.

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The Cossacks

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The high level of artistry and technique was breathtaking, like this performance involving colorful ropes that skillfully intertwine with the dance.

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The male Hopak folk dance

I have compiled the video below of all the performances…

Slava Ukraini! 🙂 

My Spanish Inscriptions: Barcelona

I always felt that Barcelona was quite different than the rest of Spain. After all, it is Catalonia. Until today, Catalans still feel a sense of separateness from the Spaniards with whom they share a nation, and Catalonia continues to debate about separating from Spain.

But considering all of this, in my mind, we were still traveling to Spain. It is really no wonder, because you still feel like you’re about to experience the Spanish traditions that are synonymous with the image of Spain as a country!

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The Catalan culture has it’s own distinct set of traditions and cuisines. But the Flamenco dance, the infamous Spanish Paella dish, and everything people generally know about Spain are also expected to be found in Barcelona. All of these cultural customs do exist and can be experienced there, however, Barcelona isn’t originally home to them.

The more we stayed in Barcelona, the more the differences became apparent.

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The view from our hotel

As excited as I was to experience Spain for the first time, my first impression of Barcelona was that it’s a tourist trap. It’s one of the most visited cities in Europe. Even though we planned our trip during the low season and expected the crowd to quiet down, it was still throbbing with tourists which became a nuisance at times.

But the city’s overall hip hangouts, interesting collections of art, and monumental architecture made everything worthwhile. After all, we were in a new place and that was enough to keep us excited all the way!

Antoni Gaudi’s Modernista Architecture

Honestly, I hadn’t known much about Barcelona’s treasured architect until we witnessed his artworks in reality. The Spaniard left his footprints all over Barcelona and we spent most of our time tracing his iconic buildings. Gaudi practiced a form of art known as Catalan Modernism, mostly drawing inspiration from nature, religion, architecture and Catalan culture. His work was characterized by mosaics and an impressive level of detail. He had a recognizably distinct and signature style in all his buildings. Barcelona is simply a manifestation of Gaudi’s artistic vision and when one thinks of Barcelona, Gaudi should immediately spring to mind.

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The Casa Batllo designed by Gaudi (built in 1904). The houses were always named after the families that lived there.

The very first building we spotted was Casa Batllo, visible from our hotel balcony. From the early morning until dusk, we could see the never-ending queues to the house and never really managed (or even attempted) to enter it.

(Just as I journey through my story here, I will be writing more about Antoni Gaudi’s work along the way, many of which are now Barcelona’s landmarks)

We continued to explore much of the city on foot. Our hotel was located in a shopping area called Eixample, so there were high-end brands everywhere. In Barcelona, the buildings are incredibly historic and most of the time I found it bothersome to see these ornate and ancient structures sharing a wall with a Starbucks or stamped with the zillionth Zara brand in the area. It was frankly an eye sore and one of the main things I immediately disliked about the city!

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Looked up as saw this beautiful cathedral!

The Gothic Quarter: La Ramblas and The Boqueria Market

It only took a short taxi ride or nice walk from our hotel to reach the famous medieval neighborhood known as the Gothic Quarter and this is where most of the touristic places are found.

The Gothic Quarter starts with the notorious La Ramblas street, a wide pedestrian zone. If you look up any tourist guide or tips it will probably tell you to preferably avoid this place at all costs and there are a number of reasons for this.

Once in the Gothic Quarter, sometimes there is really no other way to get to a place except to cross La Ramblas, so we didn’t intend to entirely stay off the tourist trail. It’s lined with giant trees and hordes of pop-up vendors selling their kitschy tourist trinkets (good for magnets though!) There are also tons of restaurants and cafes which are reportedly said to be too over-priced for only mediocre food.

Aside from being crowded, Barcelona is the pickpocketing capital of the world and the La Ramblas boulevard is THE place for it. You’d be surprised at the variations of schemes these pickpockets employ to trick their victims. The only way to safely get through this “dodgy” street was to make sure we had our bags in front of us and clutched with one hand, also ensuring all pockets are empty, or better yet, having no pockets at all.

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Walking through La Ramblas wasn’t that bad I must say. As first-time visitors it was actually quite interesting, just as any first encounter with anything.

Eroticism seems to be quite the rage in Barcelona, due to it’s open tolerance. As we look up to our left, we spot an erotic museum with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator poised at the balcony, waving at the crowd below. Flower stands along the La Ramblas sell seeds of erotic fruits, from melons that grow to look like a woman’s breast, to flowers that resemble, well, you probably guessed it!

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Ham selection in Boqueria Market

One of the places I was excited about was Mercat de La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous open food market. It’s teeming with a variety of produce ranging from a kaleidoscope of fruits, ham, flowers to cheeses. It was bustling with faces from all around the world. The limitless bounty of flavors and scents surrounding us was overwhelming, I must say!

Thinking we would be leaving with a full stomach and camera filled with photos, that wasn’t the case. The place was super crowded, we could barely walk through or even stand to look at a stall. With the amount of people rubbing up against you also made it hard to take a decent photograph!

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Interesting displays of food!

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After a quick round in the market, we left and continued our path along La Ramblas until we reached the Mediterranean sea. Around that time, the sun was just beginning to set.

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A taste of Paella!

It was time (isn’t it always?) to devour some seafood for dinner. On the beachside, we found a restaurant serving primarily fresh marine goodness with a variety of paella dishes as their specialty. We ordered the mixed seafood paella and some calamari for starters.

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I hadn’t realized how delicious paella actually is until this moment. Because the term Paella refers to the iron-cast pan in which the dish is cooked, usually over an open fire, the rice is formed into toasted, caramelized edges which becomes more tender and creamy towards the center (not as creamy as a risotto). It was bursting with seafood flavors! The calamari appetizers also melted in the mouth. Delicious!

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Interestingly, there is also a Catalan version of the Paella dish called the Fideua. It’s exactly the same, except instead of rice, the Catalans use a short type of noodle similar to the Indomie ones.

La Pedrera

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The next morning, we embarked on a trip to La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila. It’s another enduring monument of architect Antoni Gaudi, featuring an alien-like rooftop of strange figures. The house was designed for a wealthy family in 1912.

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Looking down from the rooftop

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La Pedrera courtyard

Before we were about to leave La Pedrera, there was a very interesting art shop inside with cool art figures, toys, and best of all, books on all kinds of art topics!

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Camp Nou

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I wouldn’t call myself a football fan at all. When my husband wanted us to go to Europe’s largest and most popular football stadium, I wasn’t that much enthused in the beginning.  Besides, he’s a Madrid fan. But oh boy, it turned out to be quite fun.

Camp Nou is actually referred to as an experience because it gives you access to the FC Barcelona stadium and the ‘player journey’ through back stage areas, namely the massage and relaxation room, dressing room, and press room. We enjoyed the experience at our own pace as we never enjoy being hurriedly herded through a place with tours. My husband was my personal tour guide and I was impressed by his expertise! (He’s a football fanatic!)

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The first area as we entered opened up to a museum showcasing the history of the football team complete with a parade of winning trophies and many other moments of the club’s history. Then we moved on to the back stage areas and ultimately the stadium from a tunnel entrance where players had passed through for years. The scale of the stadium was huge, I can only imagine what it’s like on match days when it’s filled to the brim!

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To top it off, there was also a new virtual reality area at the stadium that we decided to try out. In a 10 minute 360 video tour, we were immersed into the footsteps of the players and also the spectators which captured the overall lively atmosphere of a match!

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The El Raval Urban Street

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Historically known as a red light district, El Raval is considered a seedy place with a rather dark history of violence, sex, and crimes. It’s preferable not to walk these streets alone (as a female), even in the daylight. As I was taking pictures, an angry drunk woman yelled something in Spanish. I guess she didn’t want to be in the frame! There are certainly a lot of wandering eyes there that can be intimidating.

With a labyrinth of dilapidated buildings, El Raval looks almost like a ghetto. It’s also a multi-cultural community, as we also spotted falafel restaurants, Thai cuisines, Indian cafes and Pakistani supermarkets. In general, the entire district has a Bohemian and indie feel to it, which gives it part of its charm. With some exploration there are trendy spots to stumble upon.

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From a Marijuana shop

In the same area as El Raval, there’s Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum (MACBA) which is also popular with skateboarding communities.

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The Urban Scene

Gracia District

I was told that Gracia is one of Barcelona’s must-visit towns, owing to its quaint hipster neighborhood characterized by independent shops and local restaurants. It is also said that is where we could get a taste of the real Barcelona experience.

One of our first stops was Gaudi’s Park Guell!

Park Guell by Gaudi

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The park is HUGE and also insanely popular. It took quite a trek to cross the whole place!  This is probably my second most favorite of Gaudi’s works after Sagrada Familia.

Park Guell was also intended to be a new housing development for the wealthy, but for some reason, the project had failed. That’s one beautiful failure though. From what I’ve heard, is that Park Guell was quite a complex construction to build, which ultimately lacked funding. There was a plan to build up to 60 houses and the buyers would help fund this development. Due to a shortage of buyers Gaudi completed only two houses, one of them being his own and another turned into a museum. Now, it’s an artistic monument open to millions of tourists.

The centerpiece of the park is a mosaic salamander statue that resides at the gates of Park Güell. The lizard now acts as the symbol of Barcelona as well as Gaudi himself.

The intricacies of the mosaic designs covering the park are really impressive!

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Striking

Because Park Guell is located on a hill, there is also a small terrace overlooking Barcelona which at the time was undergoing construction and I believe there’s a fee to enter.

When we left the park, we stumbled upon a cool-looking vibrant souvenir shop, filled with mosaic trinkets.

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That owl though!

Since we were in Gracia, we decided to walk back to it’s next-door neighborhood called Eixample close to where our hotel is located. There, we decided to have some lunch in a place called Paelleria, and yes, it’s all about paellas!

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Black Squid Ink Paella, also called Arroz Negro

El born 

El born is another hip and trendy place. We primarily wanted to check out the district for its local shops and “Made in Barcelona” goods. El Born is actually the locals’ favorite place. It’s a very “bo-ho” – looking town with an artistic edge. Interesting places range from chic art boutiques, trendy concept stores, and even a local design market (which was closed on the day and we didn’t make it on our trip), but we did find plenty of great places to see.

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Barcelona souvenirs

The Picasso Museum

Arguably one of the most famous artists out there, this was a good enough reason to pay a visit to the museum dedicated to his life and work. What surprised us mostly, is that while he is known  for his colorful “Cubism” style artwork, this is not what we found. The museum focused mostly on the artwork he did during the early parts of his life, which were unexpectedly less vivid and radiant but duller with black and grey tones. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos at all.

It was interesting to see how his work evolved over time. I wanted to understand how he made this drastic transition in his paintings. One of the biggest factors had to do with his life story as that greatly affected how he expressed himself.

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The Santa Maria Del Mar Cathedral

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By coincidence, we came across this beautiful gothic church in El Born. We decided to take a quick peep inside, and just in time a tour was about to start. At first we joined but then wandered off and found ourselves lost from the group.

During that time we just strolled around and marveled at its interior.

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I just love it when religious sites are decorated in beautiful stained glass. It gives the church that magical and heavenly illumination, especially when sun rays shine through!

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We then found ourselves in an atmospheric courtyard, where we rested on a bench for a while and made friends with a Russian Blue.

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We decided to head back to the tour group but couldn’t find them. So we asked a man working in the church how to reach them. Apparently they were already on their way to the bell tower and had locked the door behind them. The man was kind enough to show us the way  and unlocked the old wooden door that lead to the tower.

“Here you are! Got a little lost didn’t you?” said the tour guide.

It was indeed a long climb up through a narrow spiraling staircase!

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Panting and somewhat dizzy, we finally reached the top featuring 6 bells with varied sizes. The bells are given names and baptized since they represent the voices of god.

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Further up ahead, there’s a terrace overlooking some of the best views of Barcelona!

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On the way to Poblenou District

Poblenou is also one of Barcelona’s towns recommended to us. It is another authentic part of the city with a local atmosphere, filled with traditional Catalan hole-in-the-walls. There are old derelict buildings around from the industrial age, but also a lot of residential streets that are fun to look around.

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Before siesta time?

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A type of Hispanic baked pastry with different fillings. It’s traditionally eaten in South America, Spain and Portugal.

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The Olympic Park and Montjuic Hill

Twenty-seven years ago, the Olympic Games of Barcelona were inaugurated in 1992. Here, in Montjuic, we witnessed the beautiful Olympic Park on a cloudy morning. The vast space lined with columns are one of it’s distinguished features, as well as the soaring white needle-shaped tower which almost pierced the low-laying skies that day.

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The tower, which is called the Calatrava,  acts as a sun-dial as well as a communications tower that carried the coverage of the games back then.

Within Montjuic park, we also came across Barcelona’s Museum of Art (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). Unfortunately it was closed on the day but we still admire its beautiful architectural grounds.

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Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

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After some short chats with the locals who helped us navigate to Montjuic Castle, we eventually located the Funicular ride up Barcelona’s highest hill where the castle was situated. Oddly enough, “Montjuic Mountain” actually translates to “Mountain of the Jews” because of a Jewish cemetery that was found there.

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The Montjuic fortress overlooks the sea and for over 300 years served to defend the city. It was used to bombard the people below and to imprison, torture and execute the survivors in the 1800’s. For this reason it was also used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War.

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The cannons

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The tower that allowed the sighting of the enemy approaching both by land and by sea.

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Root top of the castle

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Harbor views

Inside the castle, prisoner rooms now accommodate displays of old artifacts, weapons, armor, and exhibits showcasing the several episodes of history of the Catalan capital. The creepiest part is that many important figures in Spanish history were even executed within its walls!

It was getting quite gloomy at this military enclave, so after exploring the place we started to head back home. It was a long day!

Last Day: Sagrada Familia 

The Everlasting Legacy that crowns Barcelona

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, also known as the Basilica of the Holy Family, was the perfect culmination to our trip. We decided to make the reservation days before in the afternoon as it’s believed that the sunsetting gives the interior a beautiful glow.

When we arrived to our destination, I was in awe!

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Started in 1883 and to this day, Sagrada Familia is an unfinished dream. It is still in the works after 135 years! Antoni Gaudi dedicated the rest of his life on the project, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to finish it within his lifetime. He believed that his client was god himself.

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Gaudi gathered most of his inspiration for this work from nature.

As I walked towards this behemoth of a church, it left me awestruck at its sheer size. I’ve always seen it in photographs and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I always felt it looked like a half-melted candle. But up close and in person, it’s completely different and it gives you a real sense of scale and grandness. The strangeness of it was rather moving.

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The Basilica is something out of a mystery/fantasy novel. It’s an ever-growing monument with fascinating stories and secrets. Every part, every corner, tells an interesting detail.

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I loved the rosy touch at the entrance.

I find it amazing that a construction so old is left to be finished in the hands of modern times, which is already set to be completed in a few years. The Basilica is entirely funded by private patrons and the entrance tickets.

If the exterior wasn’t striking enough, the ethereal beauty of the interior was just as marvelous!

I already mentioned my love for castles here, but my other big love are cathedrals!

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Enthralled by the stained glass windows!

What I hadn’t know prior, is that Gaudi himself is buried in the cathedral. His crypt is in one of the chapels and visible through a glass window from above. Fascinating!

Further inside a corridor, there’s an exhibition of the story behind Gaudi’s work.

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The workshop. Gaudi left many plans and drawings of the monument for future architects to complete. During the Spanish Civil War, a large part of these models and plans were destroyed. Therefore only a few instructions have been left for architects to rely on, who try to remain as faithful to Gaudi’s vision as possible. But inserting one’s own style is probably inevitable too. Maybe that’s what Gaudi would have encouraged as well?

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After a wonderful time at Sagrada Familia, our hunger pangs started to kick in.

Time for Tapas

We found a bustling Tapas bar next to our hotel. After going there a few times we liked the experience and became regulars.

Tapas are like morsels of meals on toasted bread and are meant to be eaten as a snack. Usually they are topped with simple ingredients like olives, cheese or ham. But Spaniards have gotten creative. In general, sharing tapas is a social activity and a bonding experience.

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Breaded chicken with goat cheese and vermicelli shrimp with cream cheese.

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Choosing tapas!

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These were so good that I ordered round 2! Asparagus wrapped in fish tempura, cream cheese wrapped in zucchini and topped with jam, and my favorite was delicious cod on a bed of sautéed spinach and some kind of unique-tasting sauce.

A Catalan Trinket

The caganer is one of the most characteristic and beloved figures in popular Catalan Christmas imagery and it is believed to represent good fortune. Apparently, pooping ceramic figures of famous people is a popular thing in Barcelona. Even presidents, political figures, and celebrities are turned into a “Caganer”. The traditional caganer is depicted wearing a red Catalonian hat and a white peasant shirt.

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That’s all for my Spanish story. If I ever do return, I think I would love to see Valencia! or perhaps the Canary Islands 🙂

Until next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My experience working in a hotel and why I loved it.

Everyday would feel like a vacation. These were my first thoughts when I first considered a career in the hospitality and tourism sector, especially in a beautiful resort situated on the coast of Kuwait’s Arabian Gulf Sea. I remember walking into the gorgeous lobby of the multinational world-class hotel and wondering what it would be like to actually work there — great atmosphere, great perks!

As a Kuwaiti female, it’s pretty uncommon if not common at all to work in a hotel in Kuwait. The tourism industry is not as advanced and progressive in the country making it an unpopular career choice. People also have this misconception that if you do work in a hotel then you’re either a receptionist, doorman or a housekeeping attendant which are all absolutely false assumptions and merely stereotypes.

Being in the PR & Marketing field, I was eager to start off my career promoting a hotel. If people were opting for the banks and oil companies, I was heading the opposite direction. The deciding factor mostly had to do with my interest in the trade itself and to avoid a mundane job that I would dread waking up to every day. After some persistence, I managed to land a position in the PR & Marketing department in Kuwait’s luxury resort and I was thrilled!

Knowing I had to sacrifice some of my work-life balance, I still willingly accepted the offer to start my journey in an industry completely new to me and I couldn’t wait to discover it.

First and foremost, working an 8-6 job wasn’t easy after all. Being a 24-hour based business, the long hours and a few quiet breaks between the rush all come with the package of working as a hotelier.

In hotel life, there is constantly something happening somewhere to someone at sometime, whether a colleague or a guest. It’s full of life, action, stories and involves a great deal of variety. It’s never-ending drama. I was always expecting the unexpected. At some point, it gets exhausting but almost in a good way.

There is so much that goes on behind-the-scenes. The beautiful surroundings, content guests, smiling staff and impeccable service are merely the surface of what really happens. There is more than meets the eyes. Everything extends far beyond what the customer sees. The amount of intricacies that go into effectively running the complex operations of a huge resort was challenging, but being part of each layer of communication to make something happen was rewarding and satisfying. To the guest, it’s merely like waving a magic wand!

There is always a new experience to promote; whether a product, service or event. Behind creating that perfect instagrammable 5-course set menu to upload on Instagram, for instance, there is a team of passionate culinary experts mastering the plating and presentation, keeping the food “alive on set” by stroking it with a brush of oil to maintain a “just-cooked” look, while service colleagues arrange the table and adjust the lighting at the venue and the restaurant manager ensures that everything else looks flawless. Over at housekeeping, the team add their own personal touches in the rooms ahead of a guest’s arrival, who is delighted to find an origami towel creation of an animal on their immaculately-tucked bed. Then somewhere on the beach there’s an energetic Zumba class or yoga session taking place, a romantic candle-lit dinner to impress, a team of chefs getting read to cook up tonight’s beachside barbecue, or an embassy prepping to celebrate their national day with festive activities.

The hotel is made up of a giant team all of which are interconnected in one way or the other in a chain reaction – if a detail goes wrong, everything else tumbles down. Ultimately, the goal is to serve up memorable moments to guests meticulously, be it an elaborate wedding, VIP arrangement, media welcoming, or celebrity hosting. Some of my colleagues are so dedicated with this, that I wonder how they are able to maintain their positive demeanor at all times even in the face of stress and chaos, which is something I myself have picked up on and got used to. Handling the image of every aspect of a hotel required being a perfectionist in every sense of the word to ensure that everything was up to the highest standard of luxury. Everything is detail-oriented.

As a PR & Marketing practitioner, I wasn’t dealing directly with guests the majority of the time. However, from time to time, I did face some of the dozens of guest interactions that took place on a daily basis, especially when it came to celebrity visits, media, and commercial photo-shooting. There’s ample of networking opportunities, as I got to meet with people from all walks of life. Hospitality simply thrives on interaction with all types of people.

Overtime, the hotel culture becomes part of you, a lifestyle. I befriended multi-cultural chefs, foreign journalists, local personalities and socialites and industry experts. There were a couple of times when I met well-known travelers visiting Kuwait for the first time to enjoy both the culture and hospitality and I was tasked with planning their entire itinerary in Kuwait along with a tour throughout the hotel, having a moment to act as an ambassador to my own country.

There are vast avenues to explore within the hospitality world. This meant that I could get as creative as I wanted in tackling unique challenges. I could tell the chef exactly what personalized pastry I envisioned to place in the rooms for the guest, which specific dinner set up I wanted for that sumptuous magazine photo shoot, which prestigious new publication to approach for an advertising campaign, which interesting local associations to partner with to add value to the brand, which influencers to collaborate with in creative aways to tell the story of the hotel experience, which top travel and hospitality publications to write for and much more. There was also the excitement of ongoing seasonal events throughout the year. And of course, being spoiled with the perks of traveling and experiencing the brand’s distinct properties in other countries, which have their own signature culturally-connected characters and it was interesting to observe the variety and differences in their type of services.

Even when I tried to unplug and de-focus from the chaotic and frenzied time at the hotel I simply couldn’t. If I wasn’t at the premises itself, I was engaging with our online guests on Facebook or Instagram, answering their inquiries and producing fresh content. There’s not a moment of calm. Each day is unique which kept my job stimulating at all times. All I can say now is that it was an eye-opening experience! As fun as it was, an industry so fast-paced and demanding of my time and energy eventually meant it really was time for me to take a breather.

I gathered all the experience I needed, and it was only a matter of time before I took that experience with me to new ventures. At the end of the day, being part of a hotel was indeed a unique encounter from which I gained new insights and perspectives.

The fun part of it all is that in between all these experiences and encounters, I constantly raised the bar in accelerating my own learning curve. I didn’t just grow professionally, but even personally by learning so much through a journey I had been crafting for myself along the way, and most importantly one that I had initiated and believed in pursuing. My family and loved ones always encourage me and provide me with remarkable support in anything I’m passionate about, no matter how much of that thing may be a departure from “the norm”. And I am so grateful for it!