The Cats of Japanese Illustrator Aiko Fukawa

Japan appeared to me to be a country full of illustrations, in every form, on everything. From restaurant menus, signs, subway advertisements to the luggage pick up at the airport, it seemed that its a country entirely adorned with characters, color, and illustrative touches.

Because for this I picked up a few   many printed things—from free pamphlets in the subway system to stickers at department stores dedicated to paper goods– just to savor the colorful illustrations.

Since then I’ve been enamored with Aiko Fukawa’s playful illustrated cats after buying a packet of her stickers (naturally.)

Aiko is a graduate of Tokyo University of Arts and a designer of paper goods and stationary. You can buy many of her designs at Uguisu, an online store dedicated to all the wonderful Japanese paper goods that I loved while in Tokyo.

Follow her on Instagram and Tumblr, too.

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A First Time Trip to Tokyo, Japan

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I’ve been considering for a while now how to write a travel guide from our Tokyo portion of our Japan trip. It seems impossible to me now to describe how much I love Tokyo without the two of us packing up our apartment, selling off all of our possessions, and living full-time in Japan for a few years. Then, only after years living in Tokyo, do I think I could really write an insider’s guide. 

But short of moving, I’ve settled on writing what a first time trip to Tokyo (and then Kyoto to follow) was like for us, how we planned, what we had time to do, etc.

I hope it helps another Japan enamored individual dreaming of their first trip to the land of the rising sun.

Here it goes!

How We Flew to Japan for Cheaper than We Expected

We have both always wanted to go to Japan (I’m talking, teenage dreams here.) but we also feared the long distance flight cost.  Thankfully there are a few tricks to finding that sweet spot travel deal to Asia. The exchange rate right now is also quite favorable, too. 

Sixth months before we started our trip planning by monitoring flights on The Flight Deal. The Flight Deal is my absolutely favorite travel web site. I’ve scored deals to Paris, Milan, Sweden, and New Orleans all from just reading the daily email.  

After noticing Japan deals posted on the Flight Deal, but not in our preferred time frame given vacation days we already had, we found a flight by using Google Flights. Google Flights is a neat service that helps you target select dates for travel, showing you when prices are higher or lower. Knowing we were in the shoulder season also helped target a price for about $800 round trip per person.

We also opened a travel rewards credit card months before the trip in order to get a signing bonus after reaching a specific amount on the card. If you have good credit and pay your monthly credit card bill on time, opening a card like Barclays Arrival Plus or Chase Sapphire Preferred (this is not sponsored, just my two cents) can significantly help defray costs of a once in a lifetime trip.  With our accumulated points we subtracted almost $800 from our total airfare cost, meaning we paid a little over the cost of one round trip ticket.

Score!

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Arriving in Tokyo

We flew first to Hong Kong on a 15 hour flight from New York City on the wonderful Cathay Pacific. This was a great flight, with an attentive crew who made flying economy for such a long distance very comfortable. It turns out this route from Newark to Hong Kong is one of the longest flights in the world! For someone like me it was a specific thrill to overcome as I’m not the most comfortable flyer. There was an abundance of entertainment and snacks–like cup of noodles–for the duration of the entire flight that eased a lot of my long-haul jitters. I even slept for more than a few hours.

At Hong Kong we had a several hour layover before switching to another Cathay Pacific flight to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, one of two airports in the Tokyo metro area. We decided on a flight to Haneda over Narita because it is actually closer to the city. I believe that more international flights arrive at Narita, though.

At Haneda we took the airport limo bus into the Shinjuku where we were staying. On the way back (we flew the same route home) we actually took the monorail to the airport. I would definitely recommend the airport limo bus, especially when you’re arriving, because it made the process much easier. You can see if it stops at your hotel, or like us, take it to a major train station area.

Where To Stay 

For the two people traveling to Tokyo renting an Airbnb offered the best deal that we could find. However hostels also looked like a fun and easy way to travel on the cheap.

I can’t speak exactly to the precise legality of Airbnb in Japan as a whole—a few internet searches suggested it operates on the down low perhaps–but we had no issues with our hosts and apartments. They apartments we rented were neat, compact, and easy to navigate. 

We decided to look in popular area for renting a place, narrowing it down to Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Harajuku. While we stayed in Shinjuku, I’d also recommend the areas around  either as good starting points. 

A big plus to renting an Airbnb was that the host provided a pocket wifi we could take with us as we traveled around the city. I realized after the trip that you can also book pocket wifis at the airport when you arrive. I would recommend getting one for your entire trip, either way. It was beyond helpful to have on us especially when navigating streets and subway systems. 

Though we rented an apartment for most of our stay, the last night in Tokyo we stayed at the boutique business hotel Hotel Niwa. It was a lot bigger than I expected a hotel in a city of tiny spaces to be. It was quite fab, with the rooms decorated like Japanese tea houses. It offered a nice respite on our last day in the city. 

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IMG_6929Getting Around 

Train stations are huge and full of things to do, buy, and eat in Tokyo. Shinjuku Station for example is actually made up of multiple department stores, concourse levels, food courts, cafes, and more. All this density makes train stations themselves a destination. I imagine if you had only a night in Tokyo, you could eat everything you dreamed of in a station like Shinjuku.

Tokyo is a sliced by multiple lines of commuter trains and subways, all operated by different private companies. Urban planning wise this system is utterly fascinating. Coming from New York City where everything is run by a single government agency, it was strange that there was no solidified system or plan. There was a hyper intensity to the mix of train lines in Tokyo.

Transit is a complicated economic and political situation for sure,  but I will say the service was so much better compared to New York City’s over burdened and oft-delayed subways. 

The JR Yamanote Line is a perfect line to ride because it travels a circle around the city. Since you pay by distance traveled you could even just stay on the train, sightseeing as you go, and end up paying just the cost of the single ride. If you have limited time in Tokyo, I’d stick to this train for most outings.

We didn’t have a JR pass for the entire trip so we bought Suica cards at a station. These cards are transferable to the other lines, which helped when we did transfer from the Yamanote line. 

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Making an Itinerary

First off, Tokyo is a megacity of 35 million. Nothing in the United States even compares to it’s size, and we’re New Yorkers.  That being said, there is way too much to do in Tokyo to fit into a five day trip. I don’t think a month would scratch the surface. So we agreed to just do what we could, simply put. I think this was the best strategy though I already have a list of what I’d do if (when) I return.

Before we left we armed ourselves with a handy Lonely Planet travel guide too. I also loved the Hey Kumo blog guide to Tokyo as well as photographer Jack Spicer Adam’s video guides from his trip.

It also helped us to bundle things together by area so we could plan a day over breakfast then know what train stations we’d be going to. We used a shared Trello board for each day, too. Traveling is so much better with trello, by the way.

Things to do, What we did 

Get lost in the lights and crowds of Shinjuku, day and night. We loved ending up in an Izakaya in Piss Alley.  You can recognize an Izakaya for their red lanterns, business clad patrons, and yakitori of chicken or pork. Glimpse another side to Tokyo (albeit completely walled off from foreigners) by wandering into the adjoining red light district. I liked to just stand inside Pachinko parlors in awe of the noise. 

Harajuku is perfect for observing the well known street style and culture, but is also full of smaller streets packed with vintage stores, cafes, and boutiques. Takashita Dori and Cat street are prime people watching spots. Also, don’t miss the trendy but delicious cylindrical crepes that this area is known for. (Yes I do want ice cream in my crepe thank you very much.)

Meji Jingu Shrine. It’s near to Harajuku but serene and quiet, even with the crowds. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a Shinto wedding which we did!

Tokyo Metropolitan Building is free and offers a panorama of the city. It’s not too far from Shinjuku, either. We went at night to the North Observatory for a gorgeous view. 

Spend a day or night in Shibuya for the famed crossing, for the busy streets. Find the hachiko statue, explore Tokyu Hands (the best, most enigmatic store of everything from leather goods to crafts to tiny scientific models), robotic or conveyor belt sushi, and general entertainment and shopping. Although I love independent non-American chains while traveling, the Starbucks in Shibuya has the best sport for watching the crowds. 

A little outside the hustle of the crossing, Shibuya can be small scale and quiet, full of interesting and trendy cafes and boutiques. We liked Shibuya Booksellers and Fuglen, a Norwegian coffee shop and bar for both day and night. 

Eat at Japanese 711. Enough said. It’s fun, full of weird but delicious edible items. It’s mad cheap!

Cheap eats! I blogged about all the cheap and wonderful things you can find and enjoy in Tokyo. Save your cash and eat it all.

Get lost in Tokyo Station for Tokyo Ramen Street and Character Street for delicious fast but beloved ramen and the weirdness of a Tamaguchi or Anime Store respectively.  

Tokyu Hands! I mentioned it already but it’s absolutely addictive, full of everything you think you want. It’s a great place to buy gifts like washi tape. There are multiple locations around the city, too. 

Browse expensive department stores and stop at their food foods in Ginza. Mitsukoshi has a grand food hall and open roof.  

Itoya Department store is full of notebooks, fancy paper, beautiful pens, and well designed items for any curated home office.

Tucked away in Ginza is Cafe de l’Ambre, a well splendid but low key great cup of pour over coffee. It’s like they used to do it in the old school post-war days. 

Ginza is also home to the Kabukiza Theater, worth a tour or a walk by.

 

 

Tsukiji Fish Market is fun even if you don’t get up early for the tuna auction. The area is packed with cheap and outstandingly fresh fish. I especially liked the small shrine for fisherman nearby. too. 

Vending Machines. Everywhere.

Explore Ueno Park then stroll into older Tokyo by going to Yanaka Ginza. The later is the only area of the city spared from the bombings of World War Two. 

Go to the top of Roppongi Hills complex for the Mori Art Museum’s contemporary collections and panorama of the city.

Learn about Edo Japan at the Edo Museum. I especially liked all the detailed models, being a tiny things lover. 

Walk along the Sumida river to just get lost.

Tips and Observations

Take note of what exit you need in a train station as most of them are so large, it can be a pain if you exit too early and have to walk around an entire block or more.

Every station will have an attendant to help you. Hooray!

Every train station will have a bathroom, too. They will be clean but often feature western and squat toilets, so do take note! There is also a lack of soap frequently in bathrooms. This confused me a lot for a country that is so organized and clean. It’s better to bring hand sanitizer.

People don’t talk on trains but as a tourist I think its okay if you are chatting quietly. It’s an orderly process of travel, though. I’m talking people line up to get on a subway, with no touching, shoving, or any kind of rude behavior most of the time. It was fantastic!

English is everywhere but it’s illustrative, meaning people think English is cool on t-shirts, signs, etc the same way we kind of use French sayings on things to make it seem cool. So people were helpful but are definitely not fluent in English conversationally everywhere you go. It helped to do some research before hand on what sorts of Japanese sayings you’ll encounter when you enter a store, etc.

To say that I experienced culture shock when in Japan seems like a cliche. But it’s true, especially for me.

The strongest feeling I had while in Tokyo was that it’s cosmopolitanism is at once familiar and yet strange, like waking up at night with the lights on. Just like you’re at first confused where you are, unsure if you’re still in your room.

I took to making notes every time I encountered something I didn’t understand which ended up with an entire list of things I want to know more about in Japanese society

Why do the trains play jingles at the station?  Why do people not talk on crowded trains, or hold hands? Why are smart phones and flip phones popular in Japan? How do they run a city so efficiently, with such density, with what seems like a chaotic mix of lights, buildings, and competing private companies? What is Japanese class, poverty, and race like compared to the USA because despite there being no crime and almost no trash, there are stratifications below the surface. How and why do they read books and buy cds (!!) in droves? Why do they just love those darn paper calendars?

It’s hard to understand another culture in a glimpse of course, so Tokyo provoked a lot of interesting questions that I’m still sorting through. For that, I’m glad I made the trip and I hope to make it back to just keep figuring it out.

But man, do I feel like I finally understand Kinokuniya bookstore in New York City though. I

 

 

 

 

 

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Claudia Pearson’s Illustration in Fodor’s Brooklyn Guide

 

I picked up the new Fodor’s travel guide to Brooklyn after spotting it at a few local bookstores in late September around, naturally, Brooklyn.

Turns out, it’s the first Fodor’s guide to Brooklyn. A much debated borough as of late for all sorts of important but complicated reasons–the guidebook mentions gentrification in albeit a brief section in the beginning–it is still strangely pleasant to have a travel guide to somewhere you already live, even if things close and change faster than I can count.

Luckily the guide has recommendations and tid-bits about the farther into Brooklyn neighborhoods of Kensington, Midwood, and Ditmas Park which happen to be where I live (in the intersection of them all.) Still, there is much to the borough I’d want to add, especially even more of those neighborhoods and places off the beaten path from most new denizens. Perhaps the next edition can expand even more into far reaches of the borough.

But illustrations in the guide were a big selling point for me. I’m a sucker for illustrated New York City and all the illustrations, including my favorite the chapter neighborhood maps, were created by a local illustrator Claudia Pearson.

Pearson made a quick video tutorial about her process for creating illustrated neighborhood maps which is super helpful for all the self-taught artists and drawers like me:

Pearson is known not only for local illustrations but also drawings of food. She sells most weekends at the Brooklyn Flea. I proudly haul my gym clothing around in her tote.

I particularly like the work she’s down for Sustainable NYC and Grow NYC.

 

 

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Little Cupcake Bakeshop

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Sometimes I eat something to immediately think: I need to make a version of this at home. It’s how I have some of my favorite recipes: lemon focaccia from France, an oven adaptation of tandoori chicken from New York’s ubiquitous Indian restaurants, noodles bowls based of Boston’s Bon Me food truck.

And now I really want to bake myself a birthday cake based on this dreaming princess cupcake I had at Little Cupcake Bakery last week. First, there is the meringue frosting that gets me. Next, there is just a little raspberry in the middle. Then, one of my absolute favorite flavors present with an almond vanilla cake.

It’s a simple combination yet I think it would make a killer double layer cake too, perhaps with a lemon almond cake to just get wild for my January birthday! I’ll see you in winter, dreaming princess birthday cake.

Little Cupcake Bakeshop

30 Prince St, New York, NY 10012

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A Guide to Cheap Eats in Tokyo and Kyoto Japan

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While we were Japan for two weeks we saved money by eating cheaply everywhere we went. I can’t think of one meal I ate that was more than $15 dollars per person. Traveling to country that is quite expensive when it comes to transit and housing, we were surprised by how well we could eat without spending too much. The wonderful thing about Japanese food is that it is uniformly delicious in Japan, from 711 to the train station restaurants, everything I ate was fresh and prepared with care.

To be sure, there is a lot of wonderful food we didn’t eat. Perhaps next time (there has to be a next time!) we’ll dine with a famous sushi chef or have a traditional kaiseki style meal. But this time. we were both content to eat like cheap hungry locals looking for a deal.

My favorite cheap eats in Japan:

Onigiri

We bought onigiri from train stations, convenience stores, small mom and pop stands, and anywhere we saw their iconic rice and nori triangle shape calling to us. The Japanese don’t eat in public while on their spectacular transit system but it seemed like onigiri were an exception to this rule.

Each onigiri costs around a dollar and some change making it a fantastic deal. They were perfect to carry with you to a bench or a park, or to eat while on a train platform. We learned the character for salmon (鮭) to quickly be able to recognize the ones we liked the most. The best part was the genius packaging the nori came in so that you could unwrap it separately from the rice, meaning your little snack’s outer layer was neat and never soggy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

It seems like a gimmick but it is the best gimmick because conveyor belt sushi is obviously cheap but very fresh. These places were pretty much a win-win for the adventurous tourist in Japan. Each piece was around a dollar and change. Add on a large Asahi beer and you’ve got yourself a filling meal.

We returned multiple times to Genki Sushi in Shibuya—though not exactly conveyor belt, it’s robotic meaning you order by the piece and it’s delivered to you like magic! We also ate a Musashi sushi in Kyoto multiple times too, they have several locations, which was a real conveyor belt sushi place. Everything was fresh and well prepared, better than fast sushi you’d get anywhere else in the United States.

Ramen

Ramen is everywhere, just like I assumed. But ramen is too good to stop eating, even if you’re on you’re forth bowl during a trip to Japan. We stuck to the fast ramen places where you can quickly order by machine out front, just the kind in train stations meant for the business crowd having a meal before a long commute home.

The best ramen to me was found in the hard to locate but very popular strip of ramen restaurants called Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. We returned twice to that hidden but popular strip of restaurants.

My favorite ramen at Tokyo Ramen Street was not traditional, though. It was full of vegetables, red pepper noodles, and a vegetarian broth. It was savory and interesting, topped with so many crispy garlic chips and a spicy tomato paste. Each bowl was around 9 dollars, enough to fill you up for lunch or dinner.

Bentos

Grabbing a bento either at a restaurant during lunch time  or in the huge food mart depachikas in department stores, was a perfect way to try sushi, udon, tempura, or soba for less than dinner prices. Restaurants almost everywhere, especially in train stations, will have good deals for lunch bentos.

I was very impressed with the depechicka at Mitsukoshi in Ginza—-they even had a roof of lawn  you could lounge on with your food.

Just wandering a train station to find food turned out to be a culinary destination in itself, and almost every train station has something to eat in it.

Yakitori

A fun part of not speaking Japanese but still putting yourself out there was standing amongst the business men in Izakayas, informal pubs known for their red lanterns on the outside. Inside, you can get a mug of draft beer and lots of skewers of chicken, sauced or salted, for under 10 dollars.

Izakayas are also a nice way to experience night lifewithout having to commit to a bar or night club scene. We especially liked the well traveled Piss Alley in Shinjuku.

Street Vendors 

Whether you’re in Osaka or Tokyo’s Tsukiji market or Ueno park,  you can sample lots of Japanese fast cuisine by eating from street vendors. Look out for fresh green tea mochi with red bean paste inside (my favorite,) gyoza, yakitori, crab, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tamago, grilled oysters, fresh sashimi, and different flavors of soft serve among much, much more.

We ate dishes from the street as often as we could. At the Tsukiji market in Tokyo we split sashimi eaten standing up with green tea to wash it down. It was devine, the best fish I’ve ever had so far for about 20 dollars.

Vending Machines

Every blog post, guidebook, and video I watched before traveling to Japan told me about Japanese vending machines existing everywhere. So despite being prepared I was still overwhelmed with adoration for their ubiquitous presence.

We made an effort to try them every day, multiple times a day. Besides wonderfully bizarre names (Calpis? hmmm) they featured great packaging and crazy selections to sample from every side street to train station to temple you’ve just walked a million steps up. All you need is a 100 or so yen most of the time. Salt and Fruit was my absolute favorite drink.

It was also convenient to have beer vending machines in both cities! We’d often save spending on alcohol at dinner and just grab an Asahi for our balcony at the Airbnbs we booked.

Honorable Mentions

711 and Family Mart convenience stores were my second homes. You can get cash out in their ATMs. They have coffee machines to supplement my exploration of vending machine can coffee. They’re also not like our American counterparts, meaning you can grab a fresh noodle bowl, onigiri, sushi, udon, or even a croissant instead of a bag of chips. Oh they also have pocky and Japanese candies!

 

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Emily Pizza in Brooklyn

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I could eat pizza everyday in New York City though I try not to for the sake of variety. In my quest pizza, I keep coming back to Emily in Clinton Hill though. They’ve got those artisan styled pizzas with great toppings, a kind of new-Brooklyn-style-pie. The Colony has honey on it which is fast becoming my favorite pizza addition.

EMILY

919 Fulton St.
Brooklyn NY 11238

 

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Hello from Japan

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I’m in Kyoto right now with just a few more days left before we fly back. I’ve seen and eaten so many great things while in Japan, I can’t wait to write it all down in a trip guide blog post and to start sketching things I’ve been keeping visual notes on. I think a series of my sketchbook will be called What I Ate at Japanese 711. Surprise, everything is red bean flavored!

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Chantal Joffe at The Jewish Museum

 

Installation view of the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Chantal Joffe. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

A few weeks ago when I was at the Jewish Museum’s pay-what-you-wish Thursday night hours,  I  was struck by a lobby corner exhibit of portraits done in a bold, textured style though each was quite small. They reminded me of Alice Neel or Lucian Freud.  All of the portraits were of women.

Turns out the exhibit is part of the Jewish museum’s Using Floors, Walls, and Ceilings series that presents contemporary artists on the walls of the museum’s lobby.

Golda Meir

The artist for the current exhibit, on view until Oct. 2015, is London-based painter Chantal Joffe. Each of the paintings is a portrait of a 20th Century Jewish woman—such as Diane Arbus,  Gertrude A. Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Susan Sontag, and Hannah Arendt—focusing on their influence on art, literature, politics. and culture. Joffee studied for months before painting, accumulating research from their lives.

I was instantly enamored with the style and scope of Joffe’s work, reading more about her career and work first in the gift shop and then online. Joffe is known for her use of photography as an starting point, painting very large and alternately small canvases, and of course for painting almost only women.

On the process of painting her subjects, Joffe describes the women she has chosen:

“My early paintings used pornographic imagery, partly because I was interested in the politics surrounding pornography, but also because I wanted to paint nudes, and through pornography I had an endless supply of images of naked women. At the time I used to think I was bringing these women back to life. The photograph had killed their soul, and they died when the magazine was discarded. I saw my paintings as resurrecting them.

Since having a child, my paintings are more personal. I wanted to convey some of that physical intensity that comes with having a baby. The anxiety and emotions are so visceral.”


 

 

 

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Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul at The New York Botanical Garden

A few weekends back to celebrate we made the trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx for the Frida Kahlo Casa Azul exhibit at The New York Botanical Gardens, a replica of the artist’s home in Mexico City.  I’ve always loved Frida Kahlo, a bad ass feminist artist, so it was a perfect time to travel to a part of New York City I’ve never explored. The exhibit was colorful and spirited, cementing my desire to make a trip to the real thing in Mexico City someday.

It was the first time I had even been to botanical gardens, too. I didn’t get to see enough of the grounds because of the August heat but I did get lost in the wooded area a bit, finding the Bronx River. I’ll definitely be back for the fall colors.

Afterwards, in that combination of summer humidity meets late afternoon hunger, we ate thin pizza and calamari on Arthur Ave at delicious classic Neopolitan  Zero Otto Nove. I need to venture back up to the Italian enclave of the Belmont section of the Bronx because many stores (naturally) were closed on Sunday when we made the adventure. Next time: Addeo and Sons!

 

 

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