Tag Archives: Japan

Greening City

High Line nyc via house and gardening addicts

New York City’s High Line park is 2.3 km of landscaped public space that floats above the city on the old High Line tracks. Last time I was in New York we spent most of an afternoon exploring the park; it was a fabulous way to explore the city and it was amazing to see all the different people using the park, from wandering tourists to locals on their lunch breaks.

Today’s post is all about how people have managed to carve out a little piece of nature even in the busiest metropolises. As you will see it doesn’t just take a green thumb but also a willingness to think unconventionally.

Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai via tripify

One of the most majestic urban gardens is surely Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai. Created during the Ming Dynasty, strolling through the lush plant life and beautiful classic Chinese buildings is like stepping back in time. If you’re there see if you can spot the many sculptures, some of mythical creatures, as you make your way through the gardens many hidden spots.

Greenwall in MadridGreen Wall in Madrid via Treehugger

The Green Wall designed by Patrick Blanc is an extraordinary sight; it is almost as if you are looking at an optical illusion. The four story high garden can be found at the Caixa Forum, an arts and cultural space in the old industrial sector of Madrid.  The wall is home to 15,000 plants, proving that you don’t need to have a traditional large plot of land to create a greener city.

Brooklyn GrangeBrooklyn Grange via inhabitat

The Brooklyn Grange is the world’s largest rooftop farm, featuring 40,000 square feet of growing space for delicious produce. What I find most fascinating about large scale urban projects like this one is the vision of the people involved. To look at a concrete rooftop and see a thriving farm is amazing. Wouldn’t it be incredible if every city could have farms hidden in the sky?

Namba ParksNamba Parks in Osaka via daily tonic

In the densely populated city of Osaka there is little room for greenery, which makes spaces like Namba Parks so essential. The eight level garden is nestled between office and apartment buildings and the Namba train station.  The garden is fully integrated into its urban surroundings, providing an oasis from the chaos of city life.

BerlinPrinzessinnengarten, Berlin

The Prinzessinngarten in Berlin is a community garden built on a vacant lot that provides a place of solace, good food and community for numerous families and citizens in the city. Similar to other city parks, like The South Central Farm in L.A., the Prinzessingarten has had to fight for it’s survival, but those who love the park are working hard to ensure the garden is kept intact.

Nanyang Technological Institute in Singapore via freshome

The rooftop garden on the School of Art, Design and Media at the Nanyang Technical Institute in Singapore is a perfect marriage of architecture and garden design. The gently sloping roof is the perfect place for students to study, take breaks or look for inspiration. The result is a gorgeous building that shows that nature and progress can coexist.

These are just a few of the examples of urban gardening. Does your city have a public greenspace you’d like to tell us about? If you don’t think your city has enough of the green stuff then get planting. As you can see, rooftops, abandoned lots, and even walls can be places to grow.

Happy Friday Everyone!

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , ,

Christmas in Japan

Image by Flickr user Ari Helminen

On this side of the world, Christmas celebrates family and coming together to celebrate the end of the year and hope for the coming one. Just like other celebrations however, in different parts of the world Christmas might have a different cultural significance.

Image by Flickr user Foxafarian

Christmas has its origins in the Christian faith, so it might be celebrated differently in some some countries where Christianity might not be a prominent religion. Coming from a dominantly Catholic country, to me it always had a meaning that was connected to religion.

In Japan, where Christianity is not a dominant religion, Christmas is celebrated rather differently and has gained a meaning that is linked more to contemporary culture instead of spiritual traditions.

Image by Flickr user Tathei

Christmas eve in Japan is a holiday to be spent with loved ones – in a much more literal sense. It’s kind of like the equivalent of Christmas in July, but instead you could think of it as Valentine’s day in February.

Christmas eve is a night for lovers, romanticized by the festive holiday lights and displays. Couples are the focus of this holiday, and most christmas celebrations center around romantic love, making it the equivalent of what valentine’s day would be in places such as the US and Canada.

There are a couple of traditions that have been adapted in Japan during the holiday season with varied approaches. Exchanging gifts is also done as a sign of good will, but not everyone partakes, possibly because it is more traditional to give a gift of goodwill to people who have helped you during the year at New Year’s.

Image by Flickr user markls

Families also prepare a Christmas meal, but it’s far from what you would expect. In recent years the Christmas meal of choice for many Japanese in urban areas is Kentucky Fried Chicken. This started a few decades ago when Christmas wasn’t a widespread holiday (it still isn’t a national holiday today), and has since become tradition.

Image by Flickr user sleepytako

The meal is similar to what families in the US would do for thanksgiving – place an order in advance to avoid waiting in a line for a special portion of chicken, christmas cake, and other special goodies.

Image by flickr user niachan

And speaking of christmas cake – Japanese christmas cake isn’t the traditional fruitcake you would expect, either. It’s basically a soft sponge cake decorated with strawberries and cream icing, sometimes with a greeting or other holiday garnish. I personally enjoyed eating this kind of christmas cake – it was light sweet but not overly laden with fruit and spice.

Image by Flickr user jjarvjp

Wherever in the world you celebrate though, Christmas never fails to be the most festive time of year. However you decide to celebrate, may your days be merry and bright!

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , ,

Oodles of Noodles

It’s Foodie Tuesday!

What’s your comfort food? I’m a total carb addict, so noodles are what I often turn to in order to soothe my soul. I usually whip up some pasta with tomato sauce or maybe gooey mac n’ cheese when I’m at home but when I crave something like pho or yakisoba, I head out to a restaurant.

asian noodles

Image: Wheatflourbook

I don’t know why I am hesitant to make these dishes; most large grocery stores stock both a wide variety of Asian noodles and the necessary condiments to recreate them at home. It’s not like I have to make the noodles by hand, which really is an art:

Video: Chef Danny Yip Makes Noodles

My favourite noodles are soba, thin strands of pasta made with buckwheat flour. Despite the delicate texture, they have a hearty taste and texture. Unfortunately, Japanese restaurants in North America rarely offer many soba dishes; one might find a cold salad of noodles tossed with vegetables or a hot soup of noodles in broth but that’s about it.

Image: Full Fork Ahead

This time of year I’m looking for something heartier and this recipe for Stir-Fried Pork and Sugar Snaps with Soba Noodles sounds both easy and delicious.

udon via spoonImage: Spoonful

As much as I love the nutty flavour of soba, sometimes I miss the toothsome texture of a thicker noodle. This is when I turn to udon, another Japanese noodle. In addition to its larger size, udon is made with regular wheat flour and therefore has a much more neutral flavour profile. Like soba noodles, udon are traditionally served both cold and hot, and often in a broth. When I start to come down with a cold, I crave miso soup instead of chicken noodle. I will have to try New Asian Cuisine’s recipe for Udon Miso Noodle Soup the next time I start to feel poorly.

Image: Carey Jones, New York Serious Eats

In China, rice noodles are more common and these have spread to several other parts of Asia. One dish that I have heard about from foodie traveler friends is Char Kway Teow (“Stir-fried Ricecake Strips”), which is popular in the night markets of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Image: Ooh, Look…

Flat rice noodles are stir-fried with sausage, seafood, and egg; I think this would be the perfect street-snack after having a few drinks. Since we don’t have night markets in Louisville, I will have to try to make it at home. The Chinese sausage might be a challenge but MasterChef Australia contestant Poh Ling Yeow has a recipe that is otherwise fairly easy to put together in the home kitchen.

Steamy Kitchen Vietnamese Pho Noodle SoupImage: Steamy Kitchen

Rice noodles are also the star in Vietnamese pho, a soup made with either beef or chicken. The broth is fragrant with spices (including cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, and cloves) and brightened with fresh cilantro and mint. When you need a sensory pick-me-up, this dish is the one try. Steamy Kitchen’s recipe isn’t the easiest but I bet it produces a fantastic pho.

Seattle Chocolates Savory RamenRamen noodle chocolateImages: Seattle Chocolates

My other go-to comfort food? Chocolate. I’m not sure that I am ready to mix my two faves but if you are braver than I am, you can try Seattle Chocolate’s Ramen Noodle Bar, a mix of uncooked ramen and dark chocolate or the even bolder Savory Ramen, with onion, garlic, and soy sauce added to the mix.

Image: Simply Reem

This winter, when the going gets tough, this girl will be going for the noodles. Who’s with me?

Posted in Culture, Food | Tagged , , ,

Summer Fireworks


Fourth of July Fireworks. Image by Renee Alfonso.

Last week the United States celebrated its birthday, and in true American tradition, the fourth of July was celebrated in the capital with a fireworks display that attracts thousands of tourists each year. In other parts of the US as well, fireworks are an independence day tradition, and many other major cities also boast their own displays, such as New York and San Diego.

Although fireworks are a global symbol of celebration, its origins are in Asian culture – with some of the most elaborate displays today being done in the Asian region today.

Fireworks originated in China, with the earliest recorded accounts of fireworks dating back to the 7th century. They were originally developed fireworks as a means  of entertainment for the emperor’s court. However they quickly gained popularity, and the science of firework-making became a respected profession.

Fireworks print

Woodblock print of Fireworks. Image via Era Woodblock Prints.

Europeans and western cultures came to know about fireworks in the mid 17th century, right about the time when Christian missions and colonial expeditions began to bring bits of asian culture back to their homelands. Early explorers called fireworks “Chinese flowers,” relating to the aesthetic qualities of the displays. Similarly, the Japanese term for fireworks, “Hanabi,” also translates to “flowers of fire.”

Fireworks are still traditionally Chinese and are a large part of the chinese culture, especially for festivals. Two of the major festivals celebrated with fireworks are the Mid-autumn festival and of course, Lunar new year. Today, China remains the largest manufacturer of fireworks in the world.

Fireworks over the Forbidden City

Image via Emperor Tours Ltd

Elsewhere in Asia, particularly in Japan, fireworks are also a cultural event, especially in the summer. Fireworks festivals, or Hanabi-taikai, are held throughout Japan, showcasing some of the most elaborate displays in the world.

Japan's fireworks festival

Image via Blog From Tokyo

Famous fireworks festivals in Japan include the Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai, held over the Sumida river in Tokyo, and the Yokohama Hanabi Taikai, which also takes place over water in Yokohama bay. During such festivals, street vendors set up stalls, where spectators can buy street food and also play games. Many people also wear traditional garb during the festivals such as Yukata (Summer Kimono)  and Jinbei (Summer shorts and short robe).

Going to the Yokohama fireworks festival

Spectators in traditional wear on the way to the Yokohama fireworks festival.

Waiting for the fireworks to start

Spectator view of the Yokohama Hanabi taikai

Of course, one doesn’t really need to go to a large event to see fireworks displays – provided you can purchase them where you are, you can try and have your own fireworks summer party. Smaller fireworks are generally safer and ideal for these events, but still definitely have a festive vibe.

Mini fireworks

Add some sparkle to your summer with some fireworks!

All images in this post by Renee Alfonso, unless otherwise indicated.

Posted in Culture, Travel | Tagged , , , ,

Tanabata – The Japanese Star Festival

Image from Wikimedia commons

For Americans around the world, July 4th is always a day of celebration, and here in Washington, DC, the sky is always lit every year with fireworks. On the other side of the world, however, a few days from now another celestial celebration will take place, and for many people in asian countries, wishes will be sent up to the heavens on the evening of July 7th.

Image from Wikimedia commons

In Japan July 7th is when the festival Tanabata is celebrated. The Star Festival, as it is usually known, has its basis in Asian folklore primarily native to East Asian countries. While the celebrations that take place in contemporary Japan are uniquely representative of Japanese culture, the festival itself is Chinese in origin. The Chinese festival is known as Qixi.

Image from The Nihon Sun

The story of Tanabata is the story of two lovers who can only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. In the myth, the king of heaven had a daughter, Orihime, who was a weaver. Because she worked so hard to create the cloth, she could not meet any suitors. Her father then arranged her to meet Hikoboshi,  a suitor who lived on the other side of the river Amanogawa. When the two met, they instantly fell in love and married; however their marriage brought chaos to their heavenly kingdom. The king of heaven separated them, thus allowing them only to meet one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day, the lovers’ constellations shine brightest.

Image from X3 Magazine

Celebrations in Japan for Tanabata involve the writing of wishes on vertical strips of paper, usually in the form of poetry. The wishes are then hung on trees, usually of bamboo. Sometimes artificial trees are made to become wishing trees because in most cases the trees are set afloat on a river or burned so the wishes can be carried off to the heavens. The festival is usually anticipated by young women who have romantic wishes due to the folklore behind it. Hence it is also known as the “Lovers’ Festival.”

Image from Tokyo ezine

In contemporary Japan, the Sendai Tanabata festival is probably the largest and most well-known celebration in the eastern part of the country. It is one of the three largest summer festivals and a major tourist attraction.

Photo by Michael Tonge. From A Billion Voices.

During the festival, seven types of paper decorations are usually put out to symbolize the different types of wishes that people can send to the heavens. The most famous type of decoration and today most synonymous with the festival is the large ornamental ball with streamers. The decoration itself was a contemporary addition to the traditional paper wishes conceived in the 1940’s by merchants in Sendai. The strips of paper hanging represent the cloth that Orihime would weave.

Image from Pint4Japan

Photo by Josep M. Berengueras

While the most common wishes during the season are for love, health, and prosperity, you can of course, wish for anything on this special day. Do you know what you’ll wish for this year?

Posted in Culture | Tagged , ,