Personal Post: On Teaching English in Japan

Despite my best efforts, it’s been almost 3 months since I last wrote a post on Tokyo Trendy. In that time, I’ve been amazingly busy- including visiting family and friends across the US, starting my last semester, applying for jobs, dealing with some personal lows, and switching this blog over from its old location. I just wanted to thank everyone for sticking around despite my lengthy absence.

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A few of my favorite moments from Japan.

As a second semester senior in college, I’ve become to realize that the choices I make now are the ones that will affect my path in Real Life, that pesky thing I’ve been preparing 16+ years in the American education system for. In the last few months I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly which first steps to take, as if I’m a small child learning how to walk on my own for the first time.

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Do I want the “work in a cubicle for 50 years, get married, have kids, and go to Disney World” career path? Do I want to take time to see the world, since I may not have other opportunities later? Do I move immediately into a full time career, rather than taking time off like most college students my age? Do I move to a brand new city and leave everything I know behind? Do I do what’s comfortable and easy, or step outside my comfort zone?

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If you can’t tell from this blog, I love Japan. My love of Japanese culture and society extends back into the first grade, when my teacher let us dress up in kimonos and pick up goldfish crackers using chopsticks. I’ve immersed myself in Japanese popular culture and entertainment, taken Japanese language and literature courses, and even worked at a sushi restaurant. My time studying abroad in Tokyo made me fall in love with the country, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. Although my time there was not without its difficulties, I knew I wanted to return and begin a life there.

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For the first time in my life, I truly have the freedom and opportunity to choose my own path. And with graduation looming on the horizon, I’ve begun to look at opportunities that will lead me back to the land of the rising sun.

For many college graduates like me, with only a diploma and non-fluent language skills, teaching English is a viable career path. It’s not the best paying salary, nor is there a lot of opportunity for growth, but it’s a way to live in Japan. For a year or more, you have the opportunity to not only expose children to your own culture and traditions, but also completely immerse yourself in a new society. You get to live in a Japanese town or city, eat Japanese food, and live a Japanese way of life. For someone looking to travel after university- and with a bleak job market waiting back home in the US- teaching English can be an amazing way to spend a few years abroad. Japan is my passion, and teaching English would be a way to return the country that inspired me throughout so much of my life.

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The only problem is, I’m not sure this is the right path for me.

As Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” For me, this means indulging in another one of my passions: reading. Over the past few months, I’ve begun to dive into career opportunities in the publishing industry, and I feel a thrill of excitement at the prospects of spending my life surrounded by books. I get this same thrill thinking about living in Japan, but not about teaching English.

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And as much as I want to return to Japan, I don’t think going for a job I don’t love is the best decision.

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This doesn’t mean that I’m stopping to dream of Japan. On the contrary, I’m motivated now more than ever to find a way to cultivate my passion. Despite what the future may bring, I still want to see Japan again, and if possible, live there once more.

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In a perfect world, I would be able to find a career that combines all of my passions into one. Know of any English-speaking publishing jobs in Tokyo? Let me know. Until then, I’m going to keep dreaming, learning the language, and exploring Japan as much as I can.

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Japan is still there, waiting for me. But until then, it’s time to start living my life.

Thanks for reading,

Marina

マリナ

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Kyoto

Kyoto is the final stop on my Kansai journey, and one of my absolute favorite places in Japan. Kyoto is truly the cultural capital of Japan, with buildings and temples that are hundreds of years old and rich history around every corner. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for over a thousand years (until 1869) and was formerly known as Heian-kyo, or “the capital of tranquility and peace.”

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals.

Although Kyoto is only the 8th largest city in Japan, millions of tourists flock to Kyoto to check out its amazing fall foliage, spring hanami, beautiful temples, and more. With over 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is one of the best culturally preserved cities in the world.

Kyoto

I began my journey at Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that draws thousands of people for New Years celebrations and the Gion Matsuri, a world-famous festival and parade. Just inside its gates, you can purchase Japanese street food from a variety of vendors as you make your way to other sites.

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Many people pass through Yasaka Shrine on their way to Maruyama Park, another extremely popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn foliage in the fall. The park has dozens of beautiful walkways, ponds, and Japanese gardens, and many people come here to take pictures in kimono or traditional dress.

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park KyotoMaruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park is a perfect place to take pictures. Many tourists visit in beautiful kimono, such as this woman.

From Maruyama Park, you can easily walk to other temples or cultural heritage sites in the area. My favorite was the Higashiyama district, one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical areas. Between its narrow lanes, wooden buildings, traditional architecture and hundreds of small shops, you truly feel as if you are in Heian-kyo or the old capital city.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The crowded streets of the Higashiyama district.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The district is based on the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, so the walk includes many sets of stairs and inclined walkways. However, the hundreds of traditional shops definitely make up for the physical effort. These souvenir shops, cafes, traditional goods markets, and restaurants have been open for centuries. They continue to sell many local goods- including sweets, fabric crafts, pickles, pottery, and more- today.

Higashiyama district kyoto

Kyoto is famous for its fabric goods, which can be found in many of its traditional shops. These are little plush sushi souvenirs!

Higashiyama district kyoto

Higashiyama district kyoto

A sign for a famous cosmetics company in Japan

When walking through any part of Kyoto, you may also see young women dressed in bright and elaborate kimono, with white makeup and intricate hairstyles. These women are known as geisha, Japanese entertainers who perform traditional arts such as dance and classical music. Geisha are often regarded as one of the most famous cultural symbols of Japan, even though their numbers are severely decreasing. While there used to be over 80,000 geisha in Japan during the early 20th century, today there are less than 2,000.

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geishaHowever, most of the women you see dressed up on the streets are not true geisha, but tourists who pay anywhere from $100 to $500 to be dressed up, have their photo taken, and walk around. Real geisha are often swarmed by photographers as they leave their homes or entertaining sites, and carry themselves in an extremely sophisticated and professional manner. Many of the “geisha” you see on the streets in Kyoto are laughing, taking silly pictures, or are wearing accessories that aren’t appropriate for the current season. Either way, they still look beautiful!

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geisha

These girls definitely knew that I was taking their picture.

Kyoto geisha

This girl is a gaijin (foreigner) dressed up. I still could’t resist taking taking her picture.

Gion, a traditional district in Kyoto that originated during the Middle Ages, is one of the most well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. This district may sound familiar; it’s the setting for Arthur Golden’s famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha. The streets, which run along the Shirakawa Canal, have a number of traditional teahouses (called ochaya) and other entertainment venues that geisha still frequent today. We didn’t see any, but it was still an amazing experience to walk along the same streets that I had only read about before.

Gion kyoto

Gion kyoto

A beautiful lantern in Gion

Gion kyoto

Shirakawa Canal

Gion KyotoAlthough there are thousands of beautiful temples and shrines to see in Kyoto, one final point of interest that I recommend is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of torii gates. This shrine has walking trails up a mountain that are flanked by thousands of wooden torii, which are donated by businesses and individuals. This shrine is the most important out of thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

I unfortunately visited Fushimi Inari-taisha in the dark, but the thousands of torii were still breathtaking. I recommend visiting with plenty of daylight left, so you can climb the mountain and enjoy some spectacular views of Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari-taisha KyotoDSC_4762 If I ever return to Japan, I want to spend at least a week more exploring Kyoto. There’s so much to see and do, and yet I barely scratched the surface!

Thanks again for reading, and happy Thanksgiving!

Okonomiyaki

A few weeks ago, I talked about some of my favorite Japanese street foods. However, I left one out that is extremely popular both on the street and in restaurants across Japan. Okonomiyaki is a fried pancake, usually composed of batter and cabbage, which can have any number of toppings and mix-ins. This is reflected in its very name; okonomi literally means “to your liking” and yaki means “cooked or fried.”

Okonomiyaki

Via Flickr

While you can find okonomiyaki all over Japan, like ramen, the styles and toppings vary greatly from region to region. It’s most popular in the Kansai area of Japan (around Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto) and Hiroshima.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki from Osaka, via Flickr.

Like takoyaki, the pancake batter in okonomiyaki is not sweet. It’s filled with a number of savory ingredients, such as octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, or kimchi.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, cabbage, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

In Japan, okonomiyaki is typically served at restaurants that only specialize in this dish. There is usually a large griddle at each table or in front of the customer at the bar counter, where the chef or server will cook the okonomiyaki for you.

Okonomiyaki

An okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima. Via Flickr.

There are also many restaurants where you cook it yourself (like I tried), but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know what you’re doing, or go with someone who has cooked it before!

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Our personal grill at a cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki restaurant

First, customers order what ingredients they would like in their pancake and the server or chef brings out a bowl of raw batter, vegetables, and seafood or meat. Then, everything is mixed together and placed on the hot griddle in a pancake-like shape.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Mixing the ingredients

Okonomiyaki

Once one side is cooked, you use large metal spatulas to flip the pancake over. This is usually the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki, and without patience or practice, it can end up breaking apart.

Okonomiyaki

Definitely the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki. It took us a few tries to keep everything together (but it still tasted delicious!)

Once the pancake is cooked all the way through, you can add traditional toppings. First is okonomiyaki sauce (basically the same as takoyaki sauce), then Japanese mayo, katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), and dried seaweed. Okonomiyaki is then usually broken into bite-sized pieces and left on the cooking surface, so that each piece is hot and eaten right off the griddle.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki sauce (brown glaze), dried seaweed (green flakes), katsuobushi (brown flakes), and Japanese mayo (white lines). Via Flickr.

This type of okonomiyaki (Kansai style) is the most popular and can be found all across Japan. In comparison, the Hiroshima style has layered ingredients rather than mixed. The batter is cooked like a thin crepe and the other ingredients are added as toppings, rather than mixed into the batter. Yakisoba or udon noodles are also an extremely popular layer, topped with a fried egg and a liberal amount of okonomiyaki sauce.

Okonomiyaki

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Via Flickr.

While this dish is extremely popular in Japan, I haven’t been able to find it at all in the US. Do you know where I could find some?

In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to try cooking it myself. Just One Cookbook, one of my favorite Japanese food blogs, has a great okonomiyaki recipe. Try it out, and let me know what you think!

Osaka

Osaka is the second largest metropolis in Japan, and is located in the Kansai region about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. It’s the capital of Osaka prefecture as well as the largest part of the Keihanshin metropolis, which is composed of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.

Via Flickr

Via Flickr

 Historically, Osaka is the commercial center of Japan and was the country’s center for trading rice in the Edo period. Today, Osaka still functions as a major center for the Japanese economy and is home to several important electronic companies, including Panasonic and Sanyo.

Osaka Skyline via Flickr

Osaka Skyline via Flickr

 Although I didn’t spend much time in Osaka, this is one city that I definitely want to revisit. Because Osaka is also known for its food, I began my travels in Dotonbori, a street in the center of the city that is famous for its flashing neon signs, dozens of restaurants, and regional cuisine.

Dotonbori OsakaDotonbori OsakaDotonbori is a huge tourist attraction and the main destination for food travel in the Kansai region. Here, you can try many cuisines such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon noodles, and sushi. We visited a well-known takoyaki restaurant and spent a half hour in line just to try it!

Dotonbori Osaka

Takoyaki restaurant in the Dotonbori

takoyakiOsaka

Takoyaki

Takoyaki lights!

TakoyakiIn Osaka you often hear or see the word kuidaore, which literally means ““to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” This is exemplified in many local proverbs, particularly ones that compare the city to Kyoto. One old saying says that while Kyotoites spend all their money on shopping and kimonos, Osakans are ruined by spending money on food.

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Zubora-ya

Zubora-ya, a famous pufferfish lantern outside of a fugu restaurant

And with so many delicious options, it’s easy to see how.

Dotonbori Osaka

If you need somewhere to walk off all the food in Dotonbori, Osaka Castle is another popular tourist destination and a beautiful history site. Surrounded by Osaka Castle Park, the castle is one of Japan’s most famous buildings and played a major role in uniting Japan during the 16th century.

Osaka Castle Park

Osaka Castle Park

Osaka Castle ParkOsaka Castle

Osaka Castle was built in 1583 under orders of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a territory lord and general who is revered as Japan’s second great unifier. While it was burned down in several battles, the castle was rebuilt in the early 20th century and is considered a symbol of Osaka.

Osaka Castle

The castle is open to the public, and contains a museum inside with many artifacts and displays about the 16th and 17th century. On the 8th floor, you can also enjoy amazing open-air views of the city.

Osaka Castle

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DSC_5434Osaka also offers attractions for all ages, including the second largest aquarium in the world, traditional theaters, shopping districts, an enormous Ferris wheel, and more. Plan to stay for a few days, and make sure to bring plenty of money for food. You may leave a few pounds heavier than when you came, but with so much to try and do, it’s definitely worth it.

Osaka Castle

Osaka CastleI’ll be finishing my tour of the Kansai area next week, but thanks again for reading! What kind of travel destinations do you prefer, historical or modern?

How Large is Tokyo?

Via flickr

Via flickr

Just exactly how large is Tokyo?

A view from the 35th floor in a building near the Tokyo Sky Tree

The answer: mindbogglingly huge.

Whenever I try to explain how large Tokyo is, a lot of people have trouble imagining the vastness of a single city. They imagine other fairly dense cities like Boston or New York, where you can hop on a train or drive from edge to edge in just an hour (never mind traffic, of course!).

Via flickr

Tokyo, however, isn’t just a city. It’s the largest metropolis in the world.

A satellite view of Tokyo

A satellite view of Tokyo

By official counts, Tokyo is a mere 845 square miles and has a population of around 8.9 million people. However, if you consider the greater Tokyo Area, these numbers swell dramatically to an area of 5,200 square miles and a population of 40 million.

40. Million. People.

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Even when you live at the center of Tokyo, it’s sometimes hard to grasp that you’re living in one of the densest population areas in the world. The greater Tokyo area is only .036 of Japan’s total landmass, and yet accounts for 30% of Japan’s population (10% if you only count the 23 wards).

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Because 70% of Japan’s land is made of mountains and forest, a lot of people don’t appreciate how large and dense Tokyo actually is.

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo. Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo.
Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

 In Tokyo, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. But if you do rise above the urban sprawl, it’s absolutely amazing. Being in Tokyo can make you feel ridiculously small and insignificant, but at the same time, it’s enchanting. You’re part of something so much larger than yourself.

via Flickr

via Flickr

Nara Prefecture

Although I spent most of my time abroad in Tokyo, I had the amazing opportunity to check out other famous cities and areas in the Kansai region of Japan. One of my favorite places to go was Nara, a small prefecture and city about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and lends its name to the Nara period.

While the city itself isn’t much to look at, Nara is rich with history, particularly when it comes to temples. There are 8 temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara (known as the Nanto Shichi Dai-ji), which remained powerful even after the capital of Japan moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Nara Park Nara Japan

However, my favorite part about Nara was…the deer.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Hi there!

Yes, that’s right. I said deer. According to local folklore, deer in Nara became sacred after one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on a nearby mountain riding a white deer. From then on, the deer were considered to be divine, and killing one was a capital offense punishable by death. Although the deer were stripped of their sacredness after World War II, they’re still considered National Treasures of Japan.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Whutcha doing?

Sika Deer Nara JapanToday, the miniature Shika deer can be found wandering around Nara Park and on some temple grounds. They’re extremely friendly and can be pet (although you might want to wash your hands afterwards).

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

You can also buy stacks of rice crackers from vendors along the road and feed the deer from your hands. Just be careful though- once the deer know you have food, they won’t leave you alone. I was stalked by a deer for a good 15 minutes, and when I wouldn’t keep feeding him, he head-butted me several times.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

This deer knows what’s up. He’s stalking one of the cracker vendors from behind.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Here’s my stalker deer friend literally moments before he head-butted me. Notice the sheer terror in my face.
Don’t worry though, I survived.

The deer are also extremely intelligent and have been known to wait at stoplights before crossing the street. You can even bow to the deer, and some will even bow back! I had an elderly Japanese couple laugh at me when I tried this, but once I walked away, I saw them trying the same exact thing.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Like I mentioned earlier, Nara is home to several important temples and shrines in Japan. I visited Todai-ji, a large Buddhist temple complex. Todai-ji is known for its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleDSC_5086

Todai-ji also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which stands at almost 50 feet tall. The statue was completed in 752, has undergone several restorations and repairs since then.Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Guardian of the Great Buddha

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

At the Great Buddha Hall, visitors can see the many statues, purchase ema, and visit a small gift shop with deer paraphernalia.

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Japanese ema (prayer plaques)

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleNara may not be as exciting as downtown Tokyo, but it still has plenty to do. Check out ancient Japanese history, enjoy a relaxing day in the park, and pet some deer. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer, and plenty of money for rice crackers.

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I’m staying in the Kansai area for next weeks Travel Tuesday, so make sure to keep an eye out! Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy!

Alice in Wonderland Themed Cafe

As you’ve probably noticed in my past blog posts, food in Japan is as much about the experience and presentation as it is about taste. Today, I’m continuing this trend by visiting a themed restaurant in Shibuya, called Butou no Kuni no Arisu.

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Can you guess what it’s designed after? That’s right, Alice in Wonderland.

Although a bit pricier than your average fare, themed restaurants in Japan are extremely popular. You don’t go here just for dinner- you go for the lavishly decorated interiors, interesting shows, or just downright bizarre themes. When I was in Tokyo, I saw themed cafes for almost anything you could imagine. My friends visited one restaurant called The LockUp, where you’re handcuffed and spend your night eating and drinking in a prison cell. Other themes include ninjas, Gundam (a popular space anime), vampires, robots and more.

Down the rabbit hole! (or down the stairs into the restaurant)

Down the rabbit hole! (or down the stairs into the restaurant)

DSC_2461Butou no Kuni no Arisu, or Alice in Dancing Land, is a completely Alice in Wonderland themed café. Everything- from the décor to the wait staff and menus- relates some way to this popular children’s tale. We came early since we didn’t have a reservation and were lucky enough to be seated with a waitress who spoke English! She was very excited to practice speaking with us, as she was going to study in England in a few months.

Our first glimpse of Alice in Dancing Land

Our first glimpse of Alice in Dancing Land

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The restaurant made us feel as if we really were in Wonderland. The entire restaurant was covered in drawings from the movie, and was enchantingly mysterious. Even our waitress was themed, wearing a cute ruffled version of Alice’s iconic dress.

DSC_2472DSC_2470DSC_2475DSC_2473 DSC_2493

DSC_2474Alice in Dancing Land serves western fare, from pasta and risotto to meatloaf and pizza. You can also indulge in a variety of creative cocktails, each with a twist that makes you feel like you just fell down the rabbit hole. We tried delicious tea, and felt like we were next to the Mad Hatter at his tea party.

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Fruity tea and a light salad- served in a tea cup!

Fruity tea and a light salad- served in a tea cup!

Creamy shrimp and spinach pasta

Creamy shrimp and spinach pasta

DSC_2485 My favorite part of the meal, however, was the dessert. We ordered the warm brownie and ice cream- it came shaped like a heart, with a cute pasty cut out of Alice on the top. And best of all? It was doused with liquor and lit on fire!

DSC_2489DSC_2491 I wish I had a chance to try more themed restaurants in Japan, as Butou no Kuni no Arisu was such a unique and fun experience. Perhaps next time I’m in Tokyo, I’ll get adventurous and see what it’s like to eat behind bars or enjoy some cannibalistic sushi.

DSC_2492 Would you like to try a themed restaurant? What kind would you like to go to?