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Experiencing glass bead-making at YADAWI

I’ve been getting back into exploring the art scene here in Kuwait and decided to book a glass bead-making experience at YADAWI with bead maker Lubna Saif, who is also the co-founder of the platform.

The work station

Yadawi is housed next door to the Bayt Al Othman Museum, and has several workshop spaces within for decoupaging, macrame, printmaking and calligraphy as well as studios for artists, an arts and crafts supply shop and lastly a large glass-making atelier. Yadawi is the first center of its kind in the Gulf dedicated to glass arts.

The glass-making space has several work stations for bead-making as well as a section for glassblowing and making glass structures conducted by instructor Mohammed Alduwaisan of @Gizaz_art.

My workshop was a ‘bead making taster’, so I was going into an introduction to creating beads from glass.

Murano Glass Rods laying on rod rests.

Getting started

First we started with a demonstration on how to use the glass rods and the various hand manoeuvres required when working with them under the flame.

Glass needs to be introduced to the flame gently by rolling the rods back and forth with your fingers whilst bobbing them in and out of the flame. This bobbing technique prevents the glass from cracking when inserted into high temperatures. The slower the hand movements, the slower the glass moves when beginning to melt. I had initially moved the rod around quickly to catch up with the glass drooping as it melted, but it turns out that this only makes the glass move faster. Therefore, there were several things I had to keep in mind whilst playing with the glass.

Pulling stringers

When it was time to go behind the flame myself, I tried my hand at pulling stringers first. Basically, I first learned how to create a “gather”, which is a mass of molten glass at the tip of a glass rod. Once the gather is big enough, I could use tweezers to pinch the glass and wait for the right moment to pull it. Timing is everything in this.

Here, instructor Lubna Saif has created a ‘gather’ at the tip of the rod when melting it, and getting the tweezers ready to pull the glass into a stringer.
The stringers, which are then used to decorate a bead.

Making the bead

After a warm up stretching stringers, it was time to make the actual bead!

My work station, all set up!

To make beads, essential equipment is required of course. A torch with a well-ventilated area consisting of a hood, a fuel source, mandrels, bead release, glass rods, tweezers, and most importantly safety goggles.

Glass bead-making terms

A ‘bead release’ is what each of these metal sticks (also called mandrels) are dipped in. As you can tell, the mandrels have grey coloured tips and once warmed up in the flame, the glass permanently sticks to them.

Mandrels

To get started, I selected the colour of the glass rod I wanted and held it in my dominant hand. I waved the rod in and out of the flame in order for the glass to adjust to the change in temperature and to avoid a “shock” (heating it directly will cause the glass to shatter/crack).

Then, the tip of the glass begins to turn red and that’s when I would start to roll the glass rod back and forth between my fingers for even heat distribution. This movement needs to be consistent to avoid the glass from drooping or cooling.

I take the mandrel (dipped stick) into my other hand and warm it up simultaneously, focusing on both of my hands doing two different things – one hand is rolling the glass rod while the other keeping the mandrel horizontally and moving it in and out of the flame and preparing it for the incoming hot glass rod.

An example of the glass rod in one hand, mandrel in the other.
Glass rod making contact with the mandrel to make the bead.

Once the glass rod touches the mandrel, I roll the rod on to it whilst rotating the mandrel away from me. This sounds difficult but with practice, it becomes mesmerising and enjoyable to the point that one wants to make one more bead after another.

Once I am satisfied with the bead, I gently pull away the glass rod allowing the flame to cut the trailing string.

Meanwhile, I put down the glass rod but continue to heat the bead on the mandrel – shaping it to perfection and evening out any bumps or inconsistencies to make it rounder. The practice is similar to roasting a marshmallow!

Smoothing out the bead I created.

At this point, I can also introduce a stringer to decorate the bead with dots, florals or swirls. As I mentioned above, a stringer can be compared to a delicately thin glass pencil that is used to draw lines or other details on the bead.

I learned how to create swirls in my bead as shown below.

After the bead is taken off the flame, it is immediately plunged downwards into a coal-like substance called vermiculite to allow them to cool gradually and avoid cracking.

After a couple of days, we released the beads from the mandrel and polished them from inside with water.

Now, it was time to take the beads home!

This workshop was three hours long and I got an extra two hours on another day to fully complete the learning experience. At the beginning, working with melted glass can be intimidating but once I learned how to handle and control the glass, it’s easy to get hooked and keep experimenting with the endless ways of making a bead. I had a great time!

My daughter also spent time in the other studio doing decoupage! 🙂 So we were both doing workshops alongside each other which was so much fun!

Seasonal Activity in Kuwait: Flamingo Watching!

Over the weekend, we decided to look for flamingos in Kuwait. Since winter is approaching, there are lots of exciting outdoor things to do now.

Flamingos migrate to Kuwait starting early Fall and stay until Spring, so it was the perfect time to see them.

We drove to the Sulaibikhat area where they are most commonly spotted. Once we arrived, we couldn’t see any and I was squinting trying to catch sight of them. I saw what looked white specks from afar. We used our daughter’s binoculars to zoom into the sea and there they were! It was so exciting to locate them.

There was a way to drive closer to them over empty sand lots and bumpy paved pathways until we reached a small cliff overlooking them with a better view.

The flamingos were moving in flocks along the sea further and further away along the shore. The higher the tide, the closer they are to the coastline. The high tide that day was at 6.30am, and we arrived at 10am which meant the tide had already receded a little but not completely. The low tide had started at 1pm that day and then high again at 9pm.

It is important to check what timings the tides start as each day is different.

Arriving super early when the tide is high is favourable as the flamingos will be in close proximity, however, since we arrived at 10am we could still see them fairly near.

A Gorgeous Visit to a Slovenian Arboretum -Volcji Potok.

Eighty-five hectares in size. Volcji Potok is a stunning public garden of various species of trees, flowers and plants around the world as well as plant “nurseries”. The garden is located in Slovenia – the third most forested country in Europe.

Even though we frequent Slovenia (aka former Yugaslavia), this was my first time stepping into this vast botanical garden. I felt I was in a mythical fantasy scene in Zelda, due in part to the park’s magnificent, towering trees of all kinds and pristine plains where one can run through freely with arms wide open.

Very cool real-size models of humpback whales

The garden is incredibly lush and it was a slow day, so there was absolutely no rush walking – which is how it is meant to be enjoyed. The parks are inspired by both English and French styled gardens.

There is a wonderful playground for kids, and I loved how it all intertwined into the surrounding nature. There are treehouses with slides, mazes that lead to a wooden tower, lakes with ducklings and catfish, a dinosaur area and other fun, giant real-life sized models of animals such as whales that were integrated interestingly into the landscape.

As we walked along the gravel trails, I was in awe of the beautiful trees – all individually labeled with their Latin names. There was one tree that rung a bell and it was the Gingko Biloba tree. This is one of the oldest living tree species in the world. It comes from an ancient group of trees that date back to before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. We’re talking a tree that has survived millions of years, it’s literally a living fossil! The tree is used for a range of medicinal purposes as well.

Tree hugger!

In April, the tulips were in bloom. In June, we were lucky to see the fully bloomed rose garden in the botanical garden. We spent time admiring all of the different kinds of roses and I felt like I was in an enchanting ancient Roman garden or one from a 19th century period. I loved how each rose had it’s own sweet distinct scent giving ode to meadows, honey and fruit. We had to be sure we weren’t sniffing into a flower with a busy bee though! My daughter ran enthusiastically from rose bush to rose bush taking in a whiff of their fragrances.

We also passed by a pond with catfish. It was funny how they swarmed towards us with their hungry gaping mouths surfacing from the water.

Hungry catfish
The area is so peaceful and wooded that it has meditation spots.
This was one of the most gorgeous pine trees I have ever seen. The photo doesn’t do justice to its scale and beauty. It was incredibly tall, and literally looked like a tree from Lord of the Rings.
Ripe pinecones are a common sighting, but finding unripe ones fallen on the ground such as these are out of the ordinary.
Ding, ding, ding!

That wraps up our visit to the garden. It’s one of those places that can be treated like a day trip, as you can spend hours wandering it’s path and trails. Mind you, we arrived in the early morning and left by around 5pm and still didn’t cover the entire area!

You can read more about my past trips to Slovenia here 🙂

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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New Year in Azerbaijan!

We decided to welcome the New Year in at Azerbaijan, a country bounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus mountains.

A former state of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is considered to be part of Eastern Europe as well as Western Asia and it was super interesting to see how its culture crosses between Soviet, Turkish and Iranian influences.

Flying over the snowy mountains of Iran.

The flight from Kuwait to Azerbaijan is almost two hours. We arrived at the Heydar Alyev Airport, named after the president who led Azerbaijan during its Soviet time.

At the airport, we went through an e-visa system after which we boarded a taxi and drove to our hotel. The air was very chilly – it was 4 degrees celsius!

I love looking out the window during the drive from any airport right to our destination. The glimpse of buildings, people and streets passing by gets one excited about what’s to come in a new place.

Marriot Hotel

Thirty minutes later we arrive at our hotel and we unpack, settle in, and change to get ready for our first exploration of Baku, the capital.

Nizami Street – Large Pedestrian Street

At this time of year Nizami Street is a jolly place to be – complete with a winter bazaar, Christmas jingles, festive lights and a cheerful crowd.

After a walk through the winter booths selling roasted chestnuts, coffee, snacks, winter fair games as well photo opportunities with Santa Claus himself, we headed for dinner at an Azerbaijani restaurant called AYDA.

The Dushbara Soup

One of the dishes I looked forward to trying was the signature Dushbara soup indigenous to Azerbaijan. This is a lamb based soup with mini lamb dumplings (dushbere) floating inside. It is always served with some vinegar on the side for acidity. Ever since we arrived at Azerbaijan, this has been my go-to warm starter at every restaurant.

Gürzə

Another dish (because I love dumplings) is Gürzə. These are larger versions of the small Dushbere dumplings and come with a sour cream or yoghurt dip.

The Next Day

Elderly men playing giant chess

There are many places in Baku named after Heydar Aliyev, so when we asked the taxi driver to take us to Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (the museum), we were taken to a plaza of the same name instead. Since we were there we had a walk around.

Heydar Aliyev Museum by Zaha Hadid

Afterwards, we went to the actual Heydar Aliyez museum designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

The museum has a lovely outdoor area with a modern kids playground and a vast green space to walk around. The entire place looked very clean, expansive and modern.

We entered the museum’s first floor, which displays the different traditional national costumes of Azerbaijan followed by musical instruments, copperware, swords and various ancient tools.

What I found cool about the musical instruments section is that each type of instrument had a ‘listening pad’ next to it that is activated once you step on it. The sensory pads trigger the audio speakers from above your head and you can listen to the distinct sounds of each instrument.

The second floor hosts even more instruments and I was pretty mind-blown at the sheer diversity of them. There were up to 200 of them on display, each with a unique design.

A circular installation made of words

One of my favourite parts of the museum was on the last top 3rd floor housing an astonishing collection of handmade one-of-a-kind dolls from Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Latvia, Italy and other parts of Europe.

handmade Pinocchio doll from Italy
Handmade doll from Ukraine
Handmade doll from Azerbaijan

I was amazed at the detailing and artistry of these dolls most of which were made by winners of international doll festivals and biennales. There are about 300 dolls in total and some made in porcelain, paper, plastic, wood as well as fabric. Each collection of dolls explore themes like dress history, comic characters, holidays, fairy-tale characters and so on. I’ve always thought that being a doll collector would be a cool hobby have.

After our trip to the museum, we headed back to Nizami Street for lunch. We went to an underground restaurant called Dolma for Azerbaijani food with the aim of trying their infamous dish called Shah Plov.

Shah Plov at Dolma Restaurant

We had checked some of the restaurant reviews in Baku and were recommended Dolma. The underground dining area resembled an old city which I loved.

The Shah Plov

The saffron-infused rice in this dish is cooked with tender lamb and tossed with chestnuts, raisins and dates. The entire thing is wrapped in a delicious, crispy filo crust or thin crunchy lavash. How much more delicious can this get?

The waiter cut open the shah plov as one would a cake, and everything came steaming out.

Chestnuts are a staple of winter in Azerbaijan and can be found in many dishes. I loved this! I said yes to every dish that contained chestnuts during our entire trip.

Preparing for New Year

That evening we got ready to celebrate the New Year at Highland Park, a large panorama ‘viewing’ square overlooking the Caspian Sea (by the way, it’s the largest body of inland water in the world!) and also home to some of the best black caviar.

We bought some New Year snack items to celebrate with from the local supermarket called BRAVO beside our hotel. I always enjoy exploring the supermarkets of any new country as it reveals a lot about the character of the place and I love checking out their groceries. A great deal of the items are purely in Azerbaijani and Russian language.

A cute wooden house with a celebratory cake inside.
Meter-long holiday cookie/biscuits collection
Sweet Corn Puffs – childhood snack

Something I enjoyed at Azerbaijani supermarkets as well is that I found a lot of childhood snacks I used to enjoy back in Ukraine that I couldn’t find anywhere else. One of these is the ‘sweet corn puffs’ which is typically available in Eastern Europe and was widely available in Soviet times. The puffs are thick and coated with fine sugar powder, they are very addictive! The last time I had these was when I was just a kid, so this was really nice and nostalgic.

Stocking up on ROSHEN chocolate

Another exciting thing I found were ROSHEN chocolates, a Ukrainian confectionary manufacturing group. We ate ROSHEN chocolates regularly back in Ukraine, so when I found them available in Azerbaijan it was a sweet gold mine for me.

Back at the hotel we hung out at the New Year’s Eve Party before heading up to Highland Park. An hour before New Year, the park was already packed on the terrace but we did manage to find a good viewing spot for the fireworks. The flight of stairs leading up to the park were lit up and the silhouettes of people going up looked really cool.

Happy New Year 2023!

Up to the Mountains in Shahdag

The following day we took a 3-hour journey to Azerbaijan’s ski resort Shahdag.

Ride to Shahdag passing villages
Drive to Shahdag

Temperatures in Shahdag typically reach below zero degrees celsius but during our stay it didn’t drop below that and the skies were clear and sunny which was pure perfection. There’s nothing better than blankets of snow and the warmth of the sun.

We stayed at the new Pik Palace Hotel for two nights, situated at the top of the mountain.

Hotel view overlooking the thermal pool and skiing area.

Activities

The first activity we tried was sleighing for kids. There were different styles of sleighs to choose from.

Another great and exhilarating activity is the ‘Coaster’.

At the beginning I thought it would be more of a slow cruise on the rails around the mountains but it turned out to be more of a roller coaster. Each ride contains two seats (back and front) with two levers on the sides at the ‘driver’s’ seat. The levers serve as a break as well as speed accelerators. The rails don’t have loops as a roller coaster does, but rather sharp curved turns and drops.

Since I am not a big fan of rollercoasters or any thrilling entertainment rides, I took it slow at first because I also didn’t want to spook my daughter who, turns out, had a blast and loved the speed. I on the other hand was somewhat pressured to use the lever to its utmost capability as there were couples behind me who clearly wanted to go at it at full swing. I didn’t want to be a bore to both my daughter and myself either, so we enjoyed the thrilling ride of frosty currents on our faces as we meandered around snowy mountain views!

Since the ride took us downwards, we then had to hop on a second time to ascend back up where we came from.

After the ride, we enjoyed frolicking in the snow, having fun with snow ball fights and made snow angels before returning back to the hotel for some warmth. Meanwhile my husband went skiing, as the activities of the day close at 5pm daily.

Horse-riding around the mountains.

Dinner at Shahdag

We decided to have some dinner at a restaurant nearby called ALOV. Our driver, who took us around in a big van, made a stop at the dining place a bit further ahead from our hotel.

Cozy outdoor seating
One of the dishes we ordered was tenderloin with chestnuts. It was really tasty!

The Following Day

In the morning we hopped on to the cable car ride. These were one of the those rides that only had a seating for three people and a simple railing in front for safety while the remaining cabin was exposed. There is, however, a way to lower the protective window down as well.

View of our hotel from the cable car ride

We reached to the top of the mountain peak, a viewing spot from which skiers launch on their slopes.

Lunch at a Village

Our driver took us to a nice place near a village that has enclosed wooden cabins to enjoy lunch in. There is no menu, but rather we were told that they’ll bring us their specialty food of the area.

The local village butcher could be seen nearby preparing the meat, and rows of large samovars were brewing tea.

An assortment of meat cooked for 14 hours

As with all dining places in Azerbaijan, we were offered pomegranate juice with our meals.

The place also had a nice playground nearby, and my daughter spent some time there before the food was brought in.

Persimmon fruits hanging from a winter tree

After our lunch, it was time to get on our 3-hour ride back to Baku through which we dozed off.

On the way, the driver had told us that we’ll be passing by a village called Quba. Quba is a Jewish village in Azerbaijan and it is characterised by red rooftops hence it is also known as ‘The Red Town’ or ‘The Red Settlement’. The village is believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish village outside of Israel and the United States which is interesting. I would have loved to explore the place but it was already getting late and we had a long drive ahead of us.

We did make one last stop at a honey and jam shop on the mountains. We bought 3-year old honey in a nice handmade pot, it was of a pale-yellow colour and in a crystallised state.

This photo of Quba was taken from Google Images.

Upon returning to Baku

After some rest back at the hotel, we decided to have a relaxing walk at Baku Boulevard which also happens to be where Baku Eye is located and the signature Flaming Towers landmark.

On a beautiful evening we got on the ferris wheel for a nighttime view of Baku.

The Next Morning: Visiting the Old Baku

One of my favourite things to do in any city is to visit the old parts. We arrived in the Qosa Qala Qapisi area in the morning and went to have breakfast at Cey Begu overlooking the old city and the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijani breakfast is similar in style to Turkish breakfasts in that we were served small sharing platters of different cheeses, olives, jam, honey, menemen (Turkish eggs & tomato), cheese pastries and of course delicious freshly baked bread. There was one Azeri breakfast dish though called “kuku”.

Azer egg-based breakfast starter called Kuku

The dish is actually Persian in origin and includes herbs, finely chopped vegetables, sometimes meat, all of which are bound together with eggs and browned on a skillet. The herbs/vegetables to egg ratio is bigger so it’s not really an omelette although it does resemble one. Kuku is served with some sour cream or yoghurt on the side.

This reminded me of the dill omelette my mum would make for us.

Some Azer touches around the restaurant.

After breakfast, we explored the streets and bought some souvenirs from the area.

We got our daughter one of these Azeri dolls dressed traditionally.

We then stopped by a couple of small, cute galleries on the way.

Entrance to a gallery.
Azeri copperware

We passed by quite a lot of hand-forged antique copperware. There is a village in Azerbaijan called Lahij which is one of the oldest villages in Azerbaijan and home to the traditional practice of making and using copper craftsmanship in caucasus.

Azerbaijan is also traditionally known for making rugs and carpets.
50,000 tonnes of different kinds of pomegranates are grown in Azerbaijan!

In Azerbaijan, the pomegranate is regarded as the king of fruits. I hadn’t known that there were that many varieties of them. The fresh fruit is sprinkled on meat, bread, sweets, and also widely served as a drink everywhere.

The Yasil Bazaarone of the biggest bazaars in Baku

Surprisingly when we arrived at the bazaar, it wasn’t crowded at all. The bazaar is mostly filled with cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, tea, jam and honey items.

An Azeri babushka. We kept bumping into each other at the bazaar and she kept telling me something in Azeri that I didn’t understand.

One of the things we were on the lookout for was the Sheki Halwa, specific to the Sheki village. The dessert is made of rice flour, hazelnuts, cardamom, saffron, and doused in either honey or a sugary syrup.

We bought this Sheki Halwa, which is traditionally packaged in a carton/cardboard box (not plastic).
A shop filled with pickles.
Walnut Jam

Another Azerbaijani specialty that we sought is Walnut jam. Walnut preserves are a traditional delicacy made from early, green walnuts. The preserves are highly prized, as their preparation is laborious and time-consuming.

I spotted these soviet style pots that my grandparents would have in their kitchen. Very nostalgic.
Variety of fruit preserves
Farm eggs

The best caviar comes from the Caspian sea, home to the Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga sturgeon fish.

Varieties of tea, including pomegranate tea which has a nice sour taste.

Last Day in Baku

On the last day in Baku, we had lunch at a well-reviewed, popular place called Chayki.

There is an indoor seating area as well as outdoors, and we opted for the outdoor enclosed terrace with a view of Baku Eye near the sea.

It’s a very pleasant and cozy dining area.

Qutabs

For starters, we loved qutab. This national Azeri dish is a flatbread folded with meat or cheese. We picked the meat one and the dough in these is paper-thin which is baked on a traditional panfrying pan. They are super delicious and I am planning to make these back home!

For drinks we ordered compote, which surprisingly to me is also a popular drink in Azerbaijan but then again it’s popular in many former soviet countries. Compote is a pink fruit drink that I loved (and still do) back in Ukraine. I even make compote back home in Kuwait and it brings back so many childhood memories.

The main dish was the dolma – Azerbaijani stuffed vine leaves consisting of lamb meat, rice and yoghurt on the side.

Dolma

For dessert, we had the infamous delectable Napoleon cake. You could find this cake literally everywhere here in Azerbaijan whether it’s in supermarkets or restaurants. Napoleon is a cake my mum would bake for us on special occasions. It is a classic soviet cake resembling the French mille-feuille and contains multitude of layered flaky puffy pastry with custard/pastry pudding-like cream in between. The cream itself softens the flakes.

Napoleon Cake

Another delicious dessert that’s found on a lot of menus here is the Honey Cake, also known as Medovik, and it is popularly eaten in Ukraine and other Soviet countries. The toasty layers in the cake are soaked with honey and then slathered with sour cream frosting.

Honey Cake

Before leaving, I had requested to have some jarred white cherry jam.

White cherry jam is a wintery delicacy enjoyed in Azerbaijan and it’s another one of their specialties.

White Cherry Jam

And that pretty much wraps up our trip to Azerbaijan. We had a great time learning about and experiencing this country. I found it fascinating how much cross-cultural influences there were especially from the Soviets. The people in Baku are also super friendly, welcoming, and caring with children.

If we were to return to Azerbaijan, I would definitely explore more of their villages.

Event Overview: The Chinese Festival for Cultural Food & Cinema at The National Library of Kuwait

This Tuesday I decided to visit the Chinese Festival event over at the National Library of Kuwait located in Kuwait City.

The event was organised by the Embassy of China to showcase and celebrate the various cultural activities of the People’s Republic of China.

When I first arrived, there were a series of performances and traditional dances taking place.

Making beef dumplings

After the dance performance, I walked through the hallway showcasing various aspects of Chinese culture. Here, a chef was folding dumplings and handing them out to guests in tupperware to take back home and cook.

Chinese Tea being served
Fruit carvings
Chinese calligraphy

The calligraphy booth offered to write guests’ names in Hanzi 漢字, Chinese letters. The piece of handwritten paper was then given as a souvenir.

calligraphy tools

I then arrived at the food section which I looked forward to the most to be honest, as Chinese cuisine is one of my top favourite.

Cool decor on a serving platter
My plate

The food was authentic Chinese with ingredients brought all the way from China. As I waited in line for the servings, two Chinese men and a Chinese woman were in front of me enthused by their native food. I asked them about some of the dishes and they were kind enough to take me through the food as we moved along the queue together. One of the men served some cow’s feet on my plate and promised that I’d like it. The thinly sliced cow’s feet looked gelatinous and as I bit into it, the dish had a cartilage texture to it which I liked. It also had a pleasant garlicky taste of sweet and spicy.

I also got myself some chunks of duck meat, but passed on the heavily peppery beef nearby that was covered in red chilli! People around me were panting to relieve their inflamed mouthes. I do consider myself an adventurous eater and willing to try out new things. I found it interesting how most of the dishes are not the typical the Chinese cuisine we are accustomed to here in Kuwait like noodles, spring rolls and dumplings. The food at this event was on another level, bringing on dishes like Mantou (steamed buns decorated with Chinese dates called jujube), small steamed fish and Mapo tofu to name a few.

Before leaving, guests received giveaways from the embassy.

Miniature silk screen
A cool collection of books for learning Chinese.
I loved that they’re these cute picture books!

And that wraps up the event!

Stationary Store Review: Al-Eshraaf Co.

I’ve admitted it before, but I have a major affinity with stationary. If I were to splurge, it would be on office and crafts supplies, cute notebooks, stickers, pens and so on!

I decided to take a couple of trips to some of Kuwait’s stationary supply shops, both bigger and more well-known ones to old stationers tucked away in various areas.

This post is about Al-Eshraaf Co. store located in Fahaheel. As expected, it occupied a place surrounded by shabby and rundown buildings, shops and restaurants. But for some reason, sometimes it’s these kind of vicinities that reveal interesting things.

Al-Eshraaf Co. Stationary Shop

The store consists of two floors. This is the basement with crafts items.

There were a lot of outdated book selections from the 90’s to early 2000’s, which I found fun to look through as they reflected the importance and novelty of certain things in their time.

A cute poster!
A giant replica of the oral cavity

If you’re looking for a pretty nice place for arts and crafts supplies, this stationary shop is a good choice!

First Travel with a Toddler – Throwback to Istanbul, Turkey

Our very first trip with our two year old daughter was to Turkey back in November of 2021.

The reason why we opted for Turkey is because we wanted somewhere close that had the best of both worlds – part Europe and part Asia. As a first-time experience, we sought to test the waters with our daughter’s introduction to travel and learn from it before we moved on to more adventurous and longer trips that were further away.

Staying occupied in the plane with a doodle mat.

The Flight Experience

The flight was some three hours long from Kuwait to Istanbul. We kept our girl busy with snacks, drawing activities, some videos on our phones as well as books. But it wasn’t long before our daughter got bored and wanted to walk on the aisle, which she did, and had more fun socialising with the passengers than all the activities we brought for her altogether. It’s no wonder, really, as this was her first time on an airplane and all she wanted to do was explore it!

Our Stay

We based ourselves in the center of Istanbul right at Taksim Square in a local boutique hotel.

Hotel view

The moment we stepped off the taxi and rolled our luggage and stroller along the cobbled pathways, Istanbul’s signature grilled aroma of meats filled the air.

Every corner, small restaurants and eateries advertised staple meals of kebab, alongside french fries and grilled vegetables on the side.
Turkish rug footwear (yes, they’re made from Turkish rugs!)
A common street snack – roasted chestnuts, especially during cold weather. So cozy!

That Night

It was already sunset and we unpacked/relaxed in the hotel before heading out for a little nighttime stroll and a dinner grab.

The streets of Taksim Square
I liked the aesthetic of this street view. A backdrop of residential buildings and calm laundry hangings, coupled with a glowing neon center from a lights shop.

As we walked the streets of Taksim, it was hectic, lively, and colourful. I loved the food street vendors in particular, who displayed fresh vegetables, fresh shellfish, and roasted chestnuts all the while we dodged pedestrians and passed locals chatting over Turkish coffee and dining. It isn’t the best area to be for a toddler, but the sensory experience was everything with so much happening in every corner. It can be quite overwhelming.

Trying some dinner

Food in Turkey

We were so hungry after our trip, that we decided to have some food at the first decent-looking restaurant we saw. Mayoosha, our daughter, had some chicken in tomato sauce on a cast iron dish with mashed potatoes on the side, while my husband and I got some grills. We all enjoyed Aryan laban – it was pretty much our go-to drink during the entire trip.

Mayoosha wasn’t accustomed to other food apart from homemade meals, so we struggled at first when it came to finding the right food for her that would make her feel comfortable. Even if something was somewhat close to what she ate at home, it wasn’t the food her mama or grandmother were cooking ^_^

Moreover, Turkish food mainly revolves around grilled meats and this can be too salty for a child. However, there are a couple of nice broths and soups to have as well. There was a lovely family eatery next to our hotel that made delicious, hearty lamb soup with bread ( I honestly don’t recall the name of the place). I would order this soup for Mayoosha and I a couple of times and my husband would bring it to the hotel room for us to eat for dinner on a cold night. It was quite nice!

Early in the morning we’d find bakers leaving their freshly-baked bread of the day at Kebap shops.
More photos capturing the street shops of Taksim Square