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Journeys in Japan – Gunma, Ikaho

Last month I took a trip to Gunma to visit famous Ikaho onsen and practice my driving skills. ^-^ It was the first time to drive the serpentine mountain road – a scary experience mainly because the road is a narrow one lane passage so if there is a car behind me I either have to stop and let it pass or speed up. I realized that the main reason people do speed up is because other cars are getting very impatient and can easily cause an accident. Conclusion – you have to drive fast to be safe. ^-^

My first stop was a big shrine right next to Udon village – a street with 200 something years old restaurants that used to feed samurai traveling between Edo and Nagano. The shrine’s gates were amazingly beautiful – the combination of deep orange, sky blue and gold yellow was truly magnificent and the intricate ornaments were one of a kind. Many people were burning scents and buying omikuji – little fortune messages written by priests. The door to the shop’s backroom was half opened so I happened to see three priests in full attire sitting under kotatsu, watching baseball game on TV and writing these fortune messages that they sell 3$ each. ^-^ How funny is that?

After shrine, I had lunch at Tamaruya udon shop – the oldest out of all shops on that street. Udon was perfectly cooked and all the good stuff that you put inside like dashi, ginger, miso, green onion and seaweed were delicious as well. Later, I bought udon noodles as a souvenir but couldn’t manage to cook it quite the same way. I guess it does take you 200 years to perfect the technique. ^-^

After lunch, I went to check all the local sightseeing places and my first stop was Toys, Dolls and Cars museum – a huge European style building that hosts various exhibitions from world’s chocolate and wine collection to old Showa toys, cars and rare teddy-bears, some of them costing hundreds thousands of yen..^-^

All those items belong to the same guy Masahiro Yokota – owner of the museum. He is a really famous collector and this museum is his main source of income. I just can’t imagine such peculiar place making any profit but apparently it does!

At the entrance, together with the ticket we got two plain Kewpie dolls that later we were offered to paint in the art room. Me and my husband were sitting on wooden benches and paining our Kewpies alongside with 5 year old children – you had to see it!

Now, who did it better? My husband may lack a steady hand but he certainly has imagination. ^-^

After museum, we went to a farm called “Green Bokujo” – a self-sustained contemporary park that allows you to observe the live of farm animals and enjoy a day on a luscious green field.

I chose to challenge archery. It requires a serious upper body strength so I could manage to hit the target only on fifth try.^-^

And I played with little sheep and goats. After reading Haruki Murakami’s “Wild sheep chase” I was a bit curious about the sheep. They do indeed look very intelligent. ^-^

In the evening, at last we arrived to the Ikaho onsen. We stayed at a ryokan called Chigira.

It had two rotemburo (outside) baths and 2 private mini onsen on each floor.

This was one of the best ryokan I have ever stayed in. The building, the room and particularly the service were exquisite. I really love traditional Japanese tatami rooms with night lanterns and paper sliding doors and little lacquer boxes for tea and stationery. There is always an alcove with scroll painting and flower arrangement; there are always yukata sets and floor cushions and paper fans and burning scents. I’m so glad that the tradition and old customs still play a big role in modern Japan.

The water in Ikaho area has a golden undertone because of a special sort of mineral in the mountains. It was told to be extremely good for skin and against fatigue. When you get out of water, your body is covered with a golden dust – that’s how intense the density of mineral is.

I took a quick dip in a private onsen and then went for an evening walk around the onsen settlement.

The local town was straight from a Showa fairytale : little kakigori, green tea and mocha cake cafes, traditional game shops, souvenir stores that sold locally made geta and fuurin and rare Kyoto scents. I felt stepping right into the perfect Japanese summer festival that I often see in many commercials and TV dramas. I have never seen such picture perfect before, mostly because it is usually all hidden behind the human mass in Tokyo. Here, there were only a few people in yukata strolling up and down the hill.

I bought as a souvenir a very cute kazeguruma (paper windmill) and scented bookmarks and potpourri satchels that you put into presents and letters. And I also got silk cocoon fuurin (wind-bell).. Again! ^-^

Next morning, I had a big Japanese breakfast with fried fish, soup, rice, pickles and nato (fermented soybeans) and then took a boat ride in the local izumi (lake). This attraction will never get old to me. I used to rent boats in the park with my grandmother and spend hours threading water with my feet, circling around small islands, feeding ducks… This is something that will always stay in my heart as a dear memory so whenever I have a chance to take a ride, I do it without thinking twice.

Then, I drove to see an ARC museum which is a Gunma annex of Hara Museum of Contemporary art – the first art space I’ve visited upon my arrival in Tokyo. The museum is built as a large scale wooden pavilion that fits perfectly into the expansiveness of Gunma’s green highland. The permanent exhibition displays both contemporary art and some of the finest traditional East Asian art which is together quite an unusual sight. It sort of eliminates the borders of time, creating a dialog in between centuries. It also triggers different levels of sensibility. Traditional art is usually esthetically more beautiful whereas contemporary pieces touch you on a more deeper emotional level, raising your imagination and hidden thoughts and desires.

There were two pieces that I loved the most. The first one was “the Hallway” by Miranda July – an installation in which introspective contemplation about life was encapsulated within the confines of a hallway. As you walk through a very narrow path, you see series of messages that take you deeper into the hallway and into your own thoughts.

The second piece was called “Exquisite pain” – a multipart project by Sophie Calle, a French photographer and recipient of Hasselblad award. Her piece depicted a visual autobiographical journey through the pain of romantic rejection and its emotional impact on her life. Inspired by the painful experience of loss, this narrative collection of photographs and texts addressed issues of rejection, self-pity and ultimately, recovery. Part I presents photographs and letters from a 92-day trip to Japan. On the last day, her lover back in Paris broke off with her by phone, and that is why each consecutive item is stamped ”92 days to unhappiness,” ”91 days to unhappiness” and so on.

Part II explains about the period after the breakup, during which photographer asked her friends to describe to her their most emotionally painful memories. Each story was embroidered on a plain screen and paired with Calle’s own story about breakup told again and again, with time becoming less and less emotional and at the end turning into a simple fact exhausted from any emotion.

I only saw the second part of the exhibition but later when I was researching Calle’s work I learned about the first and discovered this photograph, taken in Kyoto’s royal garden.

I took the very same picture 5 years ago with my mobile phone while visiting the garden through a special appointment made in advance. Apparently, it is closed for public viewing which is quite a pity as the garden is absolutely breathtaking.

At the end of my trip, I took a little detour and visited traditional British “Andy & Williams” botanic garden.

It had a beautiful collection of garden benches that I really fell in love with. They must have so many stories to tell, I wish I knew where they were used and who sat on them..Of course, I can always make my own stories. ^-^

And the garden had the grass I have never ever seen before. It was so plush and so soft and so green…I wish they would grow such grass in Shinjuku gyoen..Last time I read a book there, my skin was itching for a week from the sharp needles they grow there instead of grass..

All in all – one of the best trips this summer. I feel so grateful and so privileged to experience all these wonderful things that Japan has to offer and I’m surely not going to stop on that. My next destination is Izu!

It’s this time of year again!

It’s a week before my birthday which I like to call a pre-birthday week where each day I get something special from my lovely husband. Last weekend he took me to a Tokyo Disneyland’s very own Cirque Du Soleil “Zed”. I have never seen any other Cirque Du Soleil production so I have nothing to compare it to but I think it was pretty much an industry-standard with clowns, jugglers, flying trapeze gymnasts, contortionists and wire walkers. I didn’t get the story but it reminded me of a dream or a child’s picture book where everything just appears all of a sudden – one image replacing the other.  I really enjoyed it especially because I was sitting right in front of the stage with the beautiful dancers flying above me. ^-^

By the way, more than half of the performers were Russian or of Russian descent. There was an Israeli clown but he spoke Russian and at some point even swore on stage probably hoping that for everyone else his words would sound like an imaginary language. ^-^

After ZED we went to Disneysea for an evening admission.  Halloween is a month away so everything was decorated with meticulously curved Mickey pumpkins and paper ghosts and Autumn leaves – very beautiful.

I’ve been there many times so instead of standing in lines for the main attractions we just walked around and took the most unpopular rides for the fun of it. ^-^

The teacup ride is my favorite! It’s spinning crazy fast and really messes with your head especially after a full pint of beer.  I started to talk like a cartoon character after we got off and it really freaked my husband. Though he did manage to talk me into loosing my pink Marie the arisocat ears.. (>_<)

And I was really shocked to see my favorite Duffy bear that I got three years ago at a limited edition store being cloned and mass-manufactured.

Now, it’s the main souvenir to get when you go to Disneysea and everyone has it either as a mobile phone strap or a bag pouch or as a crazy avatar. There is a separate shop that sells just costumes for Duffy – unbelievable! In Disneysea I saw a girl with five full size Duffys on her bag – each in a different Halloween costume. My poor, old dirty Duffy – thank God you don’t see the monsters they made out of your brothers! (>o<)~

Fleurs de musique – Vincent’s first live performance

To be honest, when Vincent sent me an invite to his first live I didn’t know what to think of it because for years that I’ve known him, he never mentioned he can sing. In fact, most of our common friends are singers and he’s never claimed to be one of them till now.  But yes, he can sing and quite beautifully.

Half of the songs were in French – beautiful chanson romances. I particularly liked “Ne me quitte pas” – a very powerful song that I first heard performed by one of my favorite singers Nina Simon. You have to have a lot of character to sing it right and I think Vincent’s performance gave it justice.

I also loved the song called “Tous les cris les SOS”. I didn’t understand the lyrics besides some obvious moments but the way he sang was very emotional and I felt really connected to it.

The second half of the performance was full of surprises. Vincent invited my three favorite girls to sing duets together. At first, he did an impromptu of “Somewhere over the rainbow” and ” 君の知らない物語” with Gow chan. It was the most energizing part of the whole evening! ^-^

Then, he sang an anime song with Laura which was sooo good! They got into characters and had a small fight on stage. That was funny! I have never seen Laura like that. She looked like a 宝塚 girl! ^-^

Then, there were two French songs with Mia who had a very sweet voice. I had no idea! All my friends are so multitalented.. I felt inspired and ashamed at the same time..

Last couple of songs were in Japanese performed together with a Violin player from のだめカンタビレand a harp player who did a nice version of Arai Akino song.

After the performance, we went out to a nice little bar in Shinjuku.

Fashion’s night out 2010 – Tokyo style

FNO is an international event created in 2009 by none other than Anna Wintour (editor in chief, Vogue US) to encourage consumers to support fashion industry in declining economy and to develop a bigger awareness of fashion’s role in our daily lives. Whether it’s Dior or Gap – every major brand joined in to support the idea and showcase their collections. I don’t know about last year, but in 2010 FNO corresponded with the fashion week in NY so it received a huge coverage. It even got into Gossip girl’s season 4 opening.

Tokyo was one of the 16 other cities participating in the event so of course I couldn’t miss it.

The opening was held in Omotesando hills – a luxurious department store that houses the likes of Galliano, Dolce &  Gabbana, Jimmy Choo etc. and the hostess was Japan’s very own super model Tominaga Ai.

Oh and because it’s Japan, the event had it’s own special character Pom chan created by Takashi Murakami who collaborated with Roppongi hills and Louis Vuitton couple of years ago.

We watched the opening fashion show, had a quick bite at La Boheme and then went shopping.

During FNO all the shops were open until 11PM from Harajuku station to Minami Aoyama (Prada, Chloe, Juicy Couture, Louis Vuitton, Diesel, Yoji Yamamoto etc.) and each was offering free champagne, ice cream, makeovers, special items and a stamp rally that gave you a chance to win something big like a Fendi bag.

We started at Dior and then moved to Chanel, Burberry, Ralph Lauren..

By the way, Ralph Lauren is opening a new shop “Rugby” on Cat street which promises to be something like Abercrombie & Fitch. The opening is in two days, same day as the opening of Topshop mega store in Shinjuku. I saw the new building 7 stories high and it all belonged to Topshop. I guess that business is doing great in Tokyo. I wonder if they finally start to sell all pieces from Kate Moss line now..

This is us in front of Chanel. Fur is back in.. Surprise, surprise!

This is me in front of my favorite store Marc by Marc Jacobs. I hate it’s recent popularity in Japan.. Now, almost every major department store has MJ shop in it and you can spot a lot of MJ bags around the city.. I just wish I could keep it all to myself..

I bought there couple of things including this beautiful red polka dot scarf. I am so in love with it, can’t wait for autumn to come!

Then, we went back to Omotesando hills for a party and more cocktails. Some famous DJs from I think m-FLO and/or Teriyaki boys had created quite a crowd there so it was a lot of fun.

I was taking a lot of pictures (as always) and annoyed the hell out of guys – sorry darlings but I need my report material!

Our last stop was Laforet department store with Topshop and Kitson on the first floor. They had a party of their own with stuffed animals, fake snow and funny looking bodyguards. ^-^

More pictures from FNO here:

Those lazy hazy crazy days of summer

This August I barely had time to relax. The weather was great so we used every opportunity possible to go out and have fun. ^-^

First of all, I went to see Gow’s live performance in Yoyogi park. Her band Genez had two new songs – as always very powerful lyrics from Michael and energetic performance from Gow chan.

After live, we hang out a bit at the festival before I headed to the river to see Hanabi – fireworks with my Russian girlfriends.

Tamagawa hanabi is the only one I managed to see this year. In Tokyo and I assume in other cities too, Summer is celebrated with a series of fireworks beautiful and intricate, each having its own theme.

It’s one of the biggest and most famous fireworks in Tokyo. It is started from two different locations on the river and shot simultaneously in duration of 1 hour. Quite a spectacle – every time I am so amazed and feel myself completely overwhelmed with joy like a little child. The only downside of such events is the unbelievable amount of people. Because of a “crowd on top of a crowd” phenomenon that is Tokyo’s entertainment scene, couple of police buses as well as local volunteers were assigned to work the event’s logistics making it impossible to enjoy – every 10 or so seconds they would announce into the loudspeaker something like “Move along, don’t take pictures, people behind you would get annoyed. Move along, don’t step on each other, be polite. Move along, fireworks is gonna end in 15 minutes, 14 minutes, 13 minutes…and you wouldn’t be able to go back to the station, it would take 40 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour..” – so annoying. I couldn’t take video of a beautiful hanabi and hanabi sound because of those loud announcements. After it was finished, as promised I couldn’t get back to the station so I had to take a little detour and walk 30 minutes to a neighbor station with less people. Oh, and I never got the chance to meet my Russian girlfriends – their car was blocked by police so they had to park temporarily and watch hanabi from the other side of the river. ^-^

Then, there was Brazilian festival – a Yoyogi park event dedicated to all things Brazil.

There was food, music, dancing, beauty pageant, Samba and Capoeira performances, Havaianas and braids stations, hot guys and girls in little bikinis – all you can imagine to see at a Brazil festa. Portuguese was spoken everywhere – I had no idea there were this many Brazilian living in Japan. Most of them looked half Japanese so I assume their community has been here for quite a while.

The food was so delicious. I tried Bauru sandwich and fried chicken hearts and 100% fresh Acai berry juice. The juice was disgusting but very good for health so I drank it all. ^-^ And I really enjoyed Capoeira performances – all the jumping and twisting in the air while meticulously calculating the next move of the partner so that they don’t hit each other – really tricky!

This is me, Diana, Gow and Hitomi trying to escape the heat and hit-ons from anything but shy Brazilian guys.

After that I went to see soccer game with Serezha – a birthday boy who tricked everyone into not celebrating his birthday this year. His friend from work got second row seat tickets to a national game Japan – Paraguay! I have never seen a game this close before – it was really amazing. It was the first time I could see the faces of the players and not just their blurred figures.

There was an army of photographers in front of us with huge camera lens – it was so funny to watch them because they all looked like tiny assassins with their riffles on the target. During the half time they all moved in one organized line to the other side of the field.

The second half of the game was very intense. Japan got a goal so Paraguay team went aggressive trying to even the score. Fortunately the score stayed 1:0 till the end of the game.

Soccer fans were so organized too (like everything and everyone is in Japan). They have cheering groups with leaders, flag bearers, time keepers etc. They gather once or twice a month and create new tunes for each player, then practice singing and clapping. My friend from work is one of the leaders from the cheering team in Chiba – he explained a lot about how it works. They organize events that help them raise money to go abroad for cheering. They get special ticket quotas and always sit together. Some teams have very rich sponsors that take care of everything. ^-^

I took a picture of Honda when he was passing by. Serezha mentioned that ever since Honda started to play for Russian team, he became looking like Russian. Immediately I noticed that – his facial expression and body gestures – I could totally see Russian in him. Plus he is blond now. ^-^ I wonder if it’s something he did out of stress of living abroad. I would lie if I didn’t admit that at some point in my life in Japan I wanted to dye my hair black to fit in more..

After the game, we went clubbing with Dima. It was a pretty tough schedule : Brazilian festival, soccer game and clubbing – all in one day. But Dima insisted (as always) so we gave in.

After three or four Heinekens, Serezha went nuts. He was dancing like crazy – I have never seen him like that. He and Tamara were serving each other on the dance floor – it was so funny.

Then, there was Vincent’s first live performance in Shinjuku and a trip to Enoshima but more about it in the next post. ^-^

Some copies are better than originals

I love covers and I love when my favorite artists sing covers of some famous songs because each time they make them sound like their own. It’s really amazing how many directions you can go with just one song. I have just discovered one of the epic songs  called “Pauses” originally written by Russian band “Time machine” performed by my most favorite Russian band “Splin”.

Here is the original version

And here is the Splin version

Another example is Tori Amos version of “Smells like teen spirit” originally performed by Nirvana. Tori Amos was introduced to me by one of my closest friends when I was freshman in University and since then she is the only female singer/songwriter I listen to nonstop. ^-^ Her version of Nirvana’s mind blowing song is so soulful and so intimate I get goose bumps every time I hear it.

And of course, everyone is familiar with a brilliant remake of “Mad world” performed by Adam Lambert. I mean seriously, I had no idea that this song was this beautiful! ^-^

BBQ on Tamagawa

Last week, me and my friends from work had barbecue on Tamagawa river. I guess as everywhere else in the world, it is one of the summer traditions so whether you do it on a beautiful nature or under a train bridge with hundreds of others (like in our case), it is a lot of fun to eat grilled food, drink cold beer and enjoy your summer.

The riverside of Tamagawa for ages was the place for barbecue in Tokyo but because hundreds of BBQ stations were there each weekend causing all sorts of maintenance, local government has decided to charge 5$ per person from now on. So, the idea was to enjoy the crap out of it before the new law kicks in. ^-^

A day before, our team went to mark the place under the bridge – the most popular spot away from the unforgiving sun and went shopping. Then, woke up early the next day to prepare everything for cooking before everyone else came in. That’s another example of just how fanatically organized Japanese people are and how they never fail to go an extra mile to make it a little bit easier or a little bit more fun for everyone else.

I was in charge of yakisoba station! ^-^

We also made grilled beef and pork, shrimps and scallops, corn and sweet pepper, baked salmon and potato with butter.

There were neighboring tents with DJ booths and beach chairs and even professional filming equipment. ^-^

The weather was terrible +35C and almost 100% humidity. Add barbecue smoke to that equation and you can get the idea why  I call it a bitter sweet experience. Me and my girlfriends occasionally had to escape to the river to cool down. ^-^

On my way back home, I saw a very funny scene that is quite typical for Japan : female fans in the subway taking pictures of their idols’ poster with their mobile phones. The idol industry in Japan borders on ridiculous. Female fans, especially unmarried office ladies spend enormous amounts of money on novelty goods, concerts and DVDs. They also stand in lines for hours to be able to see a teenage singer or TV drama actor getting into a car and driving away.  I saw it so many times when I was working on Sma-station with Katori Shingo.

My brother’s wedding

This year my little brother got married. I have been meaning to post professional wedding pictures and that’s why procrastinated so long but the photographer is still working on them and can’t guarantee to be done in another month.  That’s the downside of hiring someone famous.. So I’ve decided not to wait any longer and post the ones that I made with my Lumix.

However, on the day of the wedding, I happened to forgot camera’s battery at home, haha how typical of me. In the morning, me, my brother, his bride Anna and the above mentioned photographer Masha ( went to the park where I was in charge of filming their photo shoot and occasionally holding some props like umbrella and golf clubs (humm…yeah my brother wanted my dad’s golf clubs in his wedding pictures)… Anyway, later my mom joined the party and brought me my battery from home – only again I was in charge of filming the ceremony so I didn’t get to photograph anything. So to sum up, most of my pictures are of the guests, enjoy!

The wedding ceremony took place in a beautiful small garden in Pushkin – a pretty classic garden wedding with white benches and string quartet and little strawberry cakes with campaign for the guests.

That’s the only picture I have of the two of them during the ceremony. I took it right before giving my camera to my mom hoping she would take some snapshots while I was filming. Unfortunately, she cried the whole time so that was a pretty bad idea..

There were a lot of flowers. In Russia, we have a tradition of giving flowers to the bride and groom. A pretty silly idea considering the fact that for almost 100% these flowers end up being either left at the venue or brought back to the parents’ houses where they find their peaceful ending. ^-^

So this is me in my brand new Rebeca Taylor dress and my mom in a dress I bought at I am so good at internet shopping – the dress fitted like a glove. Next to us is my cousin Liza in RED Valentino dress.

This is Alex in a tailored Kenzo suit and Andrey – my other cousin, being fashionably late as always. ^-^

This is Polina – my favorite niece.

These are my two best childhood friends. We all grew up in the same projects, rebelling together through the teens. I should post some of the pics from those years back when Stas had hair and Oleg was in a hip-hop band. Oh and I had 11 inches platform shoes and pink hair. ^-^

After the ceremony, Alex and Anna performed a rumba routine they have been practicing for months.  The song they chose was the theme song from my dad’s favorite movie “Meet Joe Black”.  “It’s a wonderful world” played when my brother proposed to Anna and then again during their first dance as a married couple. I really like this tradition and I really miss it here in Japan. The wedding should be a beautiful manifestation of love and not another nomikai…

This is my cousin (yeah another one, I have four) and me dancing. He just got kicked out of University and re-admitted again (thanks to Alex) and all because of a girl. As romantic as it is, he was pretty dumb especially knowing that there is nothing but army waiting for him once he quits his studies.

These are my relatives including my favorite aunt who is so funny I always end up dying in convulsions every time we talk. Whenever she can’t think of the right word, she makes one up – really it’s hilarious.

More relatives – Liza and Katya, Andrey’s wife.^-^

This is Polina and my cousin Alena. They are both 13 and both are really smart and mature. They already have part time jobs and boyfriends. I was still playing Barbie at their age…

At the end of the evening, girls played “catch a bouquet”. Anna threw it from the balcony for the unwed girls to catch but you can also spot several wed ones who just want better husbands, hehe.

The cake was beautiful and delicious but I wish it didn’t have the fireworks. I don’t know who started it but nowadays all the wedding cakes in Russia come with this ridiculous attribute.

As soon as I get the professional pictures, I’ll update this post but for now, that’s it guys! ^-^