Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sister Love

The weather is turning warm, the cherry blossoms are just starting to bloom, and the best part is that John and I are both excited for visits with our sisters.

My sister is arriving later today, and I am sooooo looking forward to all the fun we're going to have. In a couple days we're heading down to Kyoto, then back in Tokyo we're going to explore neighborhoods and coffee shops, see all the cherry blossoms that we can, and even stay in a capsule hotel.

In even more exciting news, John's little sister has tickets to come out and visit us in less than three months! This will be her first international trip and we can't wait to share Tokyo with her.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Purchasing Studio Ghibli Tickets at Lawson

Studio Ghibli is a fantastic place to visit while you're in Japan, but figuring out how to buy the tickets can be pretty infuriating. From the United States you can order them from travel agents, but you'll end up paying a lot more. If you're in Japan (or have a friend in Japan) they can buy them on the Loppi machine at Lawson, but it's not the most simple or intuitive process, and it can't be done in English.

To make it more frustrating, Studio Ghibli has a link on it's website showing instructions in English on how to buy the tickets, except that many of the steps are missing. If you follow their guide, you won't be able to finish if you can't read Japanese, and even if you can it may still be a struggle. 

My sister is coming to visit soon, so John and I bought tickets and I took pictures of each step along the way to fill in all the information that is missing.  If you follow all these steps, you should be able to get the tickets you want, assuming the tickets aren't sold out.

That's the other thing - tickets are limited and sell out incredibly quickly. Currently, tickets go on sale at 10:00 am on the 10th of the preceding month (e.g., tickets for April go on sale March 10th). I bought tickets 45 minutes after they had gone on sale, and my first choice of time (noon) was already sold out and I had to go with my second choice (2:00 pm). Granted, this was for a weekend date during cherry blossom season, so I can only imagine demand is higher than usual, but be aware that you should purchase your tickets as far in advance as possible. The last time my sister visited we tried, but failed, to get tickets because we didn't plan far enough ahead.

This is the home screen of the Loppi Machine. The green button is for Studio Ghibli tickets.

This screen shows which months tickets are available for. 月 is the kanji for month, so 3月 is March, 4月 is April, etc. Choose your preferred month.

Don't worry, this screen doesn't mean tickets are sold out. Just touch the orange button at the bottom.

Select your preferred date. Don't let their calendar display fool you, they list the week starting with Monday and ending with Sunday, rather than the Sunday-Saturday format you may be familiar with. As you can see, the museum is closed on Tuesday. (Confession: I accidentally bought tickets for Sunday when I meant to buy them for Saturday. Sigh.)

Select your preferred time. You have 30 minutes from the time your ticket states to enter the museum, so don't be late! (e.g., 12:00 pm tickets allow you to enter from 12:00 to 12:30)

Click the highlighted button to confirm your selected date and time. If you've made a mistake, use the arrow on the upper left (前に戻る) to go back a screen.

Select the number of tickets you need. The top choice is for adults, the middle choice is for children age 13-18, and the bottom choice is for children age 12 and under. After selecting the appropriate number, click the orange button.

If you see this screen it means that tickets are sold out for the date and time you have selected. Click the orange button then go back and try for a different time or date.

If you see this screen it means that the tickets you requested are available! Now it's asking you to create a point card, but you want to skip this step. Click いいえ on the left.

This screen is asking for your name. It will not actually be printed on your tickets, only on the receipt that you take to the cashier. (In my case the clerk did not ask for identification) UPDATE: in an effort to prevent ticket scalping I've heard that Studio Ghibli is now putting names on tickets and actually checking IDs. If you need to know how to write your name in Japanese, you can use this website. You'll want to use the hiragana, not the katakana or kanji. Be sure to type a space between your first and last names by using the button on the top right of the keyboard (一字あげる). I got an error message when I didn't do that.

After you type your name in hiragana on the top line, press this button to convert it to katakana on the second line. 

This screen is asking for your phone number. If you don't have a phone number you can enter your hotel's or make one up. If you make it up, enter 03-(4 digits)-(4 digits).

Again, confirm that you've selected the right date and time for your tickets and touch the orange button at the bottom.

Don't panic!  Nothing is wrong, they're just confirming yet again that you really want to buy these tickets.  Click はい.

Yay! You've succeeded in reserving tickets! A receipt is printing out of the machine right now. You have 30 minutes to take it to the cashier and pay for the tickets. After 30 minutes your reservation will be cancled. When you pay, they will print your Ghibli tickets out on a machine behind the counter and give them to you in an envelope.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Blue Bottle Coffee in Kiyosumi Shirokawa

Over the weekend John and I finally went out to the new Blue Bottle Coffee in Kiyosumi Shirokawa. Luckily Raku and her husband were able to come with us, and we had a really wonderful day enjoying delicious coffee and some refreshing time in nature.

Blue Bottle is a famous coffee shop that started in San Francisco and has spread to a number of cities in the United States. The couple that started it was inspired by the coffee shop culture in Japan, and excitingly they have recently expanded to Tokyo. We tried to go the weekend they opened in January, but the line was more than two hours long and it was drizzling, so we turned around. This past weekend they opened a second location in central Tokyo, so we thought it might be a good day to try the location further out. We arrived around 12:30, and the wait was still about 30 minutes, but totally worth it. This isn't somewhere to come to just gulp down a caffeine fix, but if you're looking for an entire experience this is it.

The line formed outside in the parking lot, and a security guard let people in in batches which made the line feel like it was progressing quickly. Every time the door opened we could smell a delicious sweet aroma wafting out, making us wonder what treats might accompany our coffee. Once inside the line was still about ten minutes long to place an order. If you're only trying to buy beans you can skip the entire line, just tell the guard you only want beans (mame, pronounced mah-may).

Blue bottle serves both drip coffee and espresso drinks, as well as a selection of cookies, granola, and waffles. Two of us got waffles and two of us ordered molasses ginger cookies, and they were all fantastic. Between the four of us we also ordered a single origin espresso, a macchiato, a gibraltar, and a cappuccino. We all agreed that the straight espresso was really flavorful and good. I like some milk in my drinks, but for what it is I can acknowledge that the quality of the straight espresso was fantastic. The macchiato was really good too, but I thought John's gibraltar was the standout of the bunch. There was enough milk to smooth over the sourness that makes my mouth pucker, but the roast-y bitterness was still pleasantly obvious. My cappuccino was good, but not the best I've ever had in Tokyo, next time I would order the gibraltar, but you probably can't go wrong with anything there.

The store itself is wonderfully open and spacious. In the back they have a warehouse area where they roast and package coffee beans. And in the front of the store there is ample seating. There were even fresh flowers on the counter making our wait in line more pleasant. John and Raku also noticed that the front of the store is a giant garage door that can slide open when the weather warms up.

After our coffee, we went to the park nearby. If you're a longtime reader you might recall this is the park where Yoshimi took her wedding photos. Admission costs 150 yen, but it is SO worth it. The admission fee keeps the park from feeling overcrowded, and the park offers something for everyone. There are koi and ducks swimming in the pond, a tea house and perfectly manicured trees, plum and cherry blossoms at the right time of year, and plenty of green space to catch your breath and forget you're in a city for a few minutes. I highly recommend taking the time to stop by this gorgeous park if you make the trip out for coffee.

Blue Bottle Coffee in Kiyosumi Shirokawa
Somedays it feels like Tokyo is just a collection of lines
Warehouse workers

Coffee Artisans

It's a really gorgeous space
Cappuccino and a waffle - I want to have this for breakfast every Sunday

John's gibraltar and ginger cookie, and equally magnificent breakfast

Kiyosumi Shirokawa Park 
Kiyosumi Shirokawa Park
Blue Bottle Coffee, Kiyosumi Shirokawa
Hours: 8:00-7:00 Monday-Sunday
Address: 1-4-8 Hirano, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Japanese Taxes From Scratch

This morning I paid our Japanese taxes. I never stop being amazed that handing over a huge stack of cash at the post office is such a normal thing. Or that you can withdraw so much money from an ATM to begin with.

This year John and I did our taxes on our own, following last year's return (prepared by an accountant) as a guide. It took the better part of an afternoon, but at the end of it we felt so accomplished. It's a fairly straight forward process, I think that American taxes are a lot more complicated, but of course it helps if you can read Japanese. The form itself is in Japanese, but we had instructions in English, plus John's reading ability and the google translate app on my phone which can scan and translate text at least passably well (a recent amazing discovery - all thanks to Raku!) 

I remember our first year here taxes weren't being withheld and we were so stressed out, trying to estimate how much we should be saving ourselves. We used this tax calculator as a guide, and it was a huge relief when it turned out to be pretty accurate.

The funniest part about preparing our own taxes came when we discovered that rather than providing an addressed envelope there was a large piece of paper that we were supposed to cut out and assemble ourselves. Who knew tax time would turn into craft time? Good thing we had a glue stick lying around.

In better news, the sun has come back after too many gray days, flowers are blooming everywhere, and the weather is slowly warming up. The official cherry blossom forecast says that they will start in Tokyo two weeks from today, but a few of the early blooming trees are already in blossom. I'm so excited to share this magical time of year with my sister!

Gluing up our tax envelope
The cherry blossom marketing is back
Okame Sakura - one of the early blooming varietals 
Pastel sunset over Roppongi and Azabu Juban

Monday, March 9, 2015

Glasses of Champagne and Cups of Tea

The last few days have been pretty dreary, but I've still been finding things to do. Over the weekend John and I drank a bottle of fancy champagne from 2006, the year we started dating, to celebrate our fourth anniversary. It's hard to believe the time has gone so quickly, our wedding day still seems so fresh in my memory.

Several days ago John also surprised me with this lovely little teapot. Since then I've been brewing lots of loose leaf tea and generally romanticizing all things British. I'm not sure where it's come from, I'm watching American tv shows and reading a book by a Japanese author right now. Maybe it's the the Master and Commander series that John's been reading, but lately it seems like the most magical place.

Anniversary Champagne

The perfect excuse to buy more fancy tea

Darjeeling this morning

Early flowers are starting to come out, it will be sakura season in no time!

A bright healthy lunch on a rainy day - the Harvest Bowl from Crisp Salad Works

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mabo Dofu from Japanese Soul Cooking

One of the foods John and I have discovered while living here in Japan is Mabo Dofu (mapo tofu in chinese). It's a spicy, hearty, delicious Chinese dish made of tofu and ground pork that we love. I always think it's so interesting that in the US tofu is though of as a meat substitute, while in Japan it's just another ingredient that is often cooked with meat. While the Chinese version uses sichuan pepper, the Japanese version uses sansho, a Japanese pepper closely related to the sichuan pepper corn. Sansho has a lemony flavor and like sichuan pepper creates a tingly sensation on the tongue and lips. The actual spiciness of the dish come from the bright red tobanjan paste.

I've wanted to try this recipe since I first flipped through Japanese Soul Cooking last July, but I was afraid anything I made wouldn't measure up to what I've had in restaurants. Last week I bought the ingredients and then put it off for a couple days out of nervousness, but finally gave it a shot. Let me just say WOW, it is everything I hoped it would be! John took one bite and said it tasted exactly like it was supposed to.

Japanese mabo dofu is less spicy than the Chinese version, in accordance with the Japanese palate, but this recipe is pretty spicy - definitely calibrated to American tastes. John didn't think it was too spicy, but I refilled my water more than once during dinner. If you're sensitive to spicy foods, make sure you've got lots of rice and something cold to drink, or use a little less tobanjan.

The recipe was clear and easy to follow, as they usually are. The one thing I will emphasize is the step where it tells you to break the cooked ground pork up with a fork. I didn't break mine up enough, and John and I both noticed - you really want to smash it up a lot! I also used silken tofu in place of firm (and didn't follow the procedure to press more water out) because I think the restaurants here use silken tofu as well, but John disagreed and thought it would be better with firm tofu. I'm not sure I agree, but the takeaway here is probably that you can get away with either and should definitely use they type you prefer (if you have a tofu preference.) The last step is to sprinkle the sansho on "to taste." I didn't have any idea how much to use, but since it won't greatly impact the spiciness it's not something to worry too much about. I just pretended it was a salt shaker and gave the dish a quick sprinkle, and then put it on the table to add more if we wanted.

I definitely recommend this recipe, and encourage you to try mabo dofu if you've never had it. I know a lot of people think they don't like tofu (me too, some days!) but this dish is too great to miss out on.

Read About Other JSC Recipes:
Oyakodon/Gyudon/Shiso Pasta

The ingredients

Tofu is such a funny food



Time to eat!