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Explore Japan without leaving the 514

by Marco Saveriano November 18, 2014
Explore Japan without leaving the 514

This is what we call budget travel

Young people are always encouraged to travel the world. We’re told to expand our horizons and have exciting new experiences. Unfortunately, with part-time jobs and student loans, travelling across the world is not always an option.

Luckily for us, Montreal is a booming multicultural metropolis filled with people from around the globe. To travel to Japan, a country I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was a child, all I had to do was explore my own city. No plane required!

I started my journey in Montreal’s Chinatown. Amongst the Chinese shops and restaurants on busy de la Gauchetière St., you can also find a variety of other Asian cultures thrown into the mix. As I walked the crumbling cobblestone streets, I thought to myself, what’s the first thing one must do when visiting Japan? Shop, of course! Tokyo is known to have some of the best shopping in the entire world, including the Shibuya shopping district, home to the popular Harajuku quarter. Harajuku is where high fashion meets Japanese youth street style—a culture that was popularized in North America by singer Gwen Stefani in 2004 when she began her ongoing obsession with the Japanese subculture.

Tucked away on Clark St., I stumbled upon Kawaii, a small Japanese boutique that definitely lives up to its name (kawaii means “cute” in Japanese). After walking in, it immediately felt like I had been transported to a gift shop in Harajuku. Even though the store was smaller than most Starbucks coffee shops, it was filled to the brim with everything from plush toys to cell phone accessories to fuzzy onesies. I found myself excitedly proclaiming “Oh my god, this is so cute!” more than a grown man ever should. I spent a while browsing the beauty products (including something called “baking soda” skin cleanser, eyelid tape, and bulk packs of face masks) before realizing I needed to leave immediately before spending all the money in my wallet. It may be a far cry from the crowded streets of Shibuya, but I managed to leave with a new cell phone case and a newfound appreciation for Hello Kitty.

While “kawaii” things are great, Japan has more to offer than cell phone accessories, like their rich and expansive history dating back to 30,000 BC. Continuing my trip, I tracked down a shop that features more traditional items to quench my thirst for culture.

Collection du Japon, located at 460 Ste-Catherine St. W., was exactly what I was looking for. The store’s owner helped explain some of the treasures to me, obviously picking up on my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture. They have everything you could possibly need to make your Japanese staycation feel like the real thing: traditional bento boxes (compact containers for home-packed meals), authentic kimonos and karate uniforms, a huge selection of teas and beautifully-crafted tea sets, classic Japanese artwork, porcelain dolls, language and origami books, and so much more. I almost didn’t know where to look first, since every cluttered corner brought another surprise, every item more intricate than the last.

A busy day of shopping works up a pretty big appetite, and I was ready for some delicious cuisine. Imadake, at 4006 Ste-Catherine St. W., is a Japanese resto-pub, also known as an “izakaya.” In Japan, these establishments are typically frequented by men getting drinks after a long day at work.

As soon as you walk in to Imadake you feel like you’re part of the action. “Irasshaimase!” the staff shouts as each guest walks in, which loosely translates to “welcome.” The dimly-lit pub, with its unique murals and a huge chalkboard wall, makes for a cool and relaxed environment perfect for dinner or drinks with friends. One thing this place is not? Quiet. Every few minutes, a booming voice would call out “When I say sake you say bomb!” leading to more shouts and table banging in response. A sake bomb, as it turns out, consists of a glass of beer covered with chopsticks topped with a shot of sake — an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. After the aforementioned chant, the drinkers must bang the table until the shot falls into their beer, then chug it. Obviously, I had to try one for myself. When in Rome—or in this case, Japan!

Besides Imadake’s long list of beers, sake, and cocktails (like the “Hello Kitty,” made of vodka, strawberry, guava, and lime juice, which I obviously ordered), the food was just as enticing. With a huge bowl of ramen, a staple in a Japanese diet, goma-ae (spinach topped with sesame dressing), and dumplings on the menu, I didn’t even know where to start. And for dessert, a delicious bowl of vanilla mochi ice cream left me craving more, even though I could hardly eat another bite.

What better way to end my excursion than by checking out some “local” cinema? The timing couldn’t have been more perfect because the 31st Japanese Film Festival of Montreal happened to be taking place at Cinéma du Parc, and offered free screenings of Japanese movies. One of the films, a documentary directed by Takashi Innami titled The God Of Ramen (2013), followed the day-to-day life of  Kazuo Yamagishi, the man who makes arguably the best ramen in Japan, over the course of a decade. People would line up for hours outside the legendary restaurant, East Ikebukuro Taishoken, which Yamagishi opened almost 50 years ago. Thanks to my love of the dish, I knew I had to check it out. The movie was about more than just noodles; it was a heart-warming and emotional tale about a man who has dedicated his life to working hard, and his struggle to keep up with the public’s demand as old age and poor health start to take over. I expected to leave the theatre craving another bowl of delicious steaming hot ramen, but instead left feeling oddly heavy-hearted.

As I sat on the metro on my way home from my trip around the world, it started sinking in that it was back to reality, and back to Canada. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be far, far away, even if you’re only a short train ride from home. Maybe next week I’ll pay a visit to France.

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