Thursday, July 30, 2015

Japan has Cute Stuff: DIY Fake Food

Finished creation: tiny blueberry parfait!
Whenever I went shopping for presents for my brothers, I'd always end up stumped. Not so when shopping for my little sisters! There's a huge abundance of all kinds of cute toys and accessories to be found like you wouldn't believe. 

Normally, "cutesy" is not really my thing. But I love the fake food displays outside restaurants and cafes here in when I saw a shelf in my local 100 yen ($1) store of materials for making DIY tiny fake food, I couldn't resist. One night when my husband called and said he'd be home late, I made my move and stopped at the store and got a whole bag of little acrylic tubes and tiny plastic fruit to make some parfaits. 

There seem to be a lot of parfait shops around Kyoto. Matcha (green tea) parfaits in particular have whole sections devoted to them in the Kyoto travel magazines. The displays of the plastic ones outside the cafes are so great, and the real thing actually hardly looks any different! It's an art form, people. For my cute crafty time I decided to try making a strawberry banana and a blueberry kiwi parfait. Next time I'll try a fancy matcha one. Here's the materials I started with, I paid about $5 for it all:

The best thing were these little rubber sticks, that when cut thin with scissors turned into tiny slices of strawberry, banana, and kiwi! The main thing I used was an acrylic paste in little tubes with the consistency of cake icing that dries hard after a few days, and guess what? The "strawberry" and "blueberry" ones even smelled like strawberries and blueberries! How cute is that??

I was a little clumsy at first; these things are itty-bitty! I used a pin to position the tiny plastic banana, kiwi, and strawberry slices in the layers of acrylic. The strawberry one I did first, and it turned out alright, but I accidentally filled in the little hole in cup meant for a keychain strap, so it's kind of useless. Then after letting it dry for about two days, I found it had lost a lot of the volume on the top and that the red jelly acrylic had stained the white stuff yellow...oh well, I guess that's what happens when I paid only a $1 for it. By time I did the blueberry one, I got the hang of the acrylic tubes and I think I got better at doing the layers. I was even able to leave a space to make it into a keychain once it dries! I added a lot more white acrylic to the top of that one, so I'll see how it turns out when it dries...since I just finished it! I hope it doesn't overflow the cup. 

So that was my little experience with tiny Japanese-style cuteness the other day. I'll see how the blueberry parfait turns out, and I think I'll try it again from time to's a fun way to pass the time and do something crafty!

Oh no!

Friday, July 17, 2015

How to Wear (Women's) Yukata Like a Pro

Watermelon, goldfish, fireworks, greasy food at outdoor stalls--the summer festival season is upon us! It's also the season for wearing yukata, one of my favorite parts of traditional Japanese culture. That is, I like the idea of yukata--in reality, wearing one is not very comfortable. I can't breathe and it's always so hot and I have to toddle around in awkward geta that blister up my feet.

But every year I try to take advantage of opportunities to wear yukata anyway.

I first wore yukata back when I was a college student and my Japanese roommate dressed me. Since then through YouTube videos I've learned to dress myself. I realize I made many mistakes in my early attempts. Though there are many Japanese who don't wear yukata "correctly" either, somehow being a gaijin makes me look 10x frumpier than a Japanese person if I don't make a little effort. Yes, yukata are informal kimono and the idea is you wear them however you like, but I'm going to share some tips on how to look elegant in yukata. If that's not how you want to enjoy yukata, that's ok! This is just how I like to wear it, after some practice and observing well-dressed Kyoto ladies. Here are some little drawings that illustrate common problems wearing yukata (all ones I had in my first attempts!) and a more sophisticated look that I go for now:

Now from the front:

There is one big thing to keep in mind when looking classy in yukata: let go of everything you think you know about beauty and attractiveness. In the West, boobs and butts and little waists are everything, but if you want to wear yukata, those things are not really your friend. Yukata are large, shapeless garments that when worn skillfully can suit any body type; you just have to use proportion and some little tricks to create the illusion that you have a classic Japanese figure. That Japanese shape you want to achieve is rectangular: narrow shoulders and breast-waist-hips are all the same width. If you already have a rectangular body, you'll look great in yukata! For the rest of us, there are two things I've found that really take my yukata look to the next level.

1. Wear a sports bra
Classical ideals of Japanese beauty don't focus overmuch on breasts, but on the back of the neck. The back of the neck is the sexiest part! So hide the ladies with a sports bra, or even the ones they sell meant for wearing with yukata/kimono. Even if you are a small cup size, a sports bra just makes the front of the yukata lie smooth and secure across your chest. One thing to be careful of is that most sports bras are in dark/bright colors; if you have a light-colored yukata it might show through unless you wear a cami or special yukata underwear in between.

2. Pad your waist with towels
It's often missing from the photo guides and youtube videos, but if the area from your diaphragm to your waist is any way narrower than your chest and/or hips, this step will correct so many problems with shape and tightness and instantly make you look more put-together. It will also help the obi make a smooth line with your chest if you have large breasts--in fact bigger girls might need more padding to balance the waist with the chest. Towels will also help balance your shape if you have broad shoulders. No, wrapping a couple dish-towels around your waist will not make your ensemble any more breathable in hot weather, but it will actually make a tight obi feel less constricting.

It might seem strange to hide your curves and do your best to look rectangular, but wearing yukata this way allows one to experience a different, subtler kind of feminine beauty. The drawings don't show it but another big part of being beautiful in yukata is how you carry yourself and behave. One reason yukata is not very comfortable for me yet is probably because I have bad posture! Good posture however is so important when it comes to fashion and beauty. It's also more proper to walk in small steps from the knees instead of from the hips like we're used to. Sometimes yukata make me think "thank YOU feminism!" because it's more acceptable than ever for women to choose comfort over looking nice, but I do enjoy the chance to feel feminine and elegant in another culture. Next time you get a chance to wear yukata, I recommend trading in Western beauty standards for Japanese ones and trying the above two tips to level up your yukata game!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Favorite Places and Spaces: Kyoto Cafés

Cha Cha Café near Kyoto station
Coffee was one of those things I learned to like after moving to Japan. I thought it was all very silly in college, I mean if you're saying "I can't start my day without coffeeeee!" you have a problem and it's not cute, I thought. And I decided I'd always be a tea-person.

Things changed in Japan. Japanese love tea and do drink a lot of it, in place of water or soft drinks, but they also love coffee. And I don't mean in the way a college girl in Ugg boots loves the sugary syrupy concoctions from Starbucks. A lot of people here drink it black! 
It started for me as an exchange student in the church I attended at the time, when after the service they'd bring out coffee. It was instant, it was grainy, and it was black (well, I could have added ancient sugar from a sticky jar, or powdered cream, the funnily-named Creap brand). I thought I shouldn't refuse so I always drank it just as it was. Then I started ordering it for myself when I went to cafés with friends--and enjoyed it! My husband, a coffee aficionado, continues to guide me in the art of drinking coffee, and now we use our coffee maker every morning without fail.

One of my favorite things about Kyoto is the abundance of cafés. I'm not talking chains either, though there are plenty of those. The privately-owned, little specialty cafés are amazing. I've never been disappointed in terms of either atmosphere, food, or coffee quality. I think some tourists skip the café experience because "you can drink a cup of coffee anywhere!" and they want a very Japanese, Kyoto experience when they come here, so they avoid anything that looks too modern or Western. However the kissaten café culture is a Japanese tradition, and the café food (often fusion/modern takes on Japanese, French, or Indian cuisine) is in my opinion the best thing you will find to eat in Kyoto, unless tsukemono (Kyoto-style pickled veggies) are really your thing. Many cafés are actually repurposed machiya, old Kyoto-style houses famous in this area. Do not miss this particular cafe that was once a sento (public bath house). It was hard to choose three favorite cafés to introduce to the reader of this blog, but I chose three to represent those three things I look for in a café: atmosphere, food, and delicious coffee. You can expect to spend about $3-$6 for a cup of coffee in these kinds of places, but this is the good stuff!

Atmosphere: Cafe Independants 

 Located near the busy Sanjo and Shijo shopping areas, this café is literally underground, down a narrow staircase plastered with strange posters for live music events. The floor is covered in tiles and the walls with old brick and here and there a draped cloth or flag. It's dimly lit but the vibe is youthful and casual. The hand-made ginger ale I had there one time (served in a mason jar!) was amazing. The coffee is also great but I recommend this café anytime you start feeling too mainstream, or constricted by uptight Japanese society, or need a place to gather your companions and plot a student revolution.

Food: Prinz 

Prinz is a little out of the way transportation-wise in the middle of Sakyo Ward (upper right corner of Kyoto city), but husband lived nearby before we were married, so we used to go there every once in a while. Just last month we wined and dined out-of-town relatives of Yuya's there and it was a hit! The atmosphere is whimsical and there's random things like an art gallery, library, and hotel to explore but it's the FOOD that makes this place unforgettable. They use seasonal local ingredients and a blending of French and Japanese cuisine for one-of-a-kind, amazing homemade dishes. The meat (chicken and beef) I've had there was so good I thought I'd gone to heaven. It's also quite affordable (especially at lunchtime) and the Japanese attention to detail and presentation make you feel like royalty. But all in a very casual, artistic atmosphere. The owner is apparently a graduate of the local art school in the area and it shows, in both the decor and the creative food. 

Coffee: Hiiduru Cafe (no website apparently, but here's a map)

This place is cute and relatively new, run by a young married couple. It's getting good reviews on Japanese sites for its pancakes (eating sweet pancakes at cafés is a trend these days in Japan!) but we go there for the coffee. You can choose different roasts and blends from different countries, each listed in the menu with a description of the flavors, degree of bitterness, aromas, and after-tastes. It's like choosing a wine! The beans are ground fresh and brewed right there behind the counter, so it takes a little time for your cuppa to be ready, but it's so worth the wait! You can also enjoy the sounds and smells that go into good coffee-making. It's best black in my opinion but it does hold its own even with the addition of cream. 

So there are three cafés I'm confident no one visiting Kyoto would be disappointed in. I didn't even get into the Gion area kissaten, where you can find very pricey green tea parfaits and traditional sweets that look like works of art, as well as coffee. Those are worth exploring at least once. There is also a another component to coffee fanaticism here in Japan that I have to at least mention and that's latte art, the art of creating designs in the milky foam on top of a latte. There are many popular places here to try that, including one that will create a geisha's face in your Joe, but we've yet to get into it, since we are the kind of folks who like our coffee black as sin! Anyway, the cafés are one of the reasons I love living in Kyoto. There's always something good brewing around here!