Friday, May 25, 2012

Eurovision Song Contest 2012, The competitors

Tomorrow, Saturday, May 25, is the grand finale of Eurovision Song Contest 2012! As the fan you know I am, this is almost like a national holiday.

During the week past, 36 countries have competed for the 20 coveted tickets to the grand finale. This was done through two semi-finals, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. I'm pretty happy about how it turned out. I didn't necessarily have 10 favorites in each semi-final, but most of the songs I really cared for did make it through.

Let me give a short note on the songs competing in the grand finale:

Semi-final 1
Iceland - Never Forget: I liked this song and hoped for it to go through. However, I have a feeling I would have liked it more if it was sung in Icelandic, it would have added to the mystery.
Greece - Aphrodisiac: This, I didn't care for. To be honest, many of the songs in Eurovision Song Contest is on the generic side. When generic music is done ok, it usually stays below the radar, it doesn't excite nor offend. However, the Greek contribution was so generic, it made my angry. The song, the singing, the girl singing, the beats and the dancers all wrapped up into a very irritating package.
Albania - Suus: Not my favorite, but I did put it in my top ten for this semi-final. I shun drama from my everyday life, but some added drama on stage is always welcomed. Also, the artist fascinated me. She was regal and mature, two elements you don't typically find in this competition. So, all in all, she was different, and different is usually good.
Romania - Mandinga: Not the most profound song, but it did make me happy. Any song that makes me think of a sunny day at the beach, sipping cold drinks, is ok in my book. I'm glad this upbeat summer tune made it to the finale.
Cyprus - La La Love: Herein lies the biggest controversy, I really didn't like this song. I didn't hate it, but people in general seemed to really like it. I will admit that the artist, Ivi Adamou, was beautiful. I was also very intrigued by her voice. But the song itself was really annoying. Somewhere deep within, I think I might have been able to distinguish somethings that might have been interesting, but everything was drowned out by the incessant euro-techno beat.
Denmark - Should've Know Better: It wouldn't be the Eurovision Song Contest is there wasn't any wardrobe malfunctions, Denmark being a good example of that. The outfits felt gimmicky and distracted from what was actually a really good song. I will enjoy seeing them again on Saturday, but I really look forward to hearing them again, on a CD.
Russia - Party for Everybody: Old Russian ladies. Cute and adorable as they may be, I challenge anyone who would claim this is good music. Do I need to remind people that this is Eurovision SONG Contest, not a "cute" contest, not a "good effort" contest and definitely not a "it's-actually-better-if-I-hit-the-mute-button" contest! This is not good, not good at all!
Hungary - Sound of Our Hearts: Not great nor offensive. Not good nor bad. Very bland and very boring.
Moldova - Lautar: This I enjoyed. Sure, the stage-show was a bit messy, but this song had an ease to it I really appreciated. It was playful and didn't take itself too seriously.
Ireland - Waterline: Jedward is back. Last year, I was one of their supporters. This year, not so much. You can't blame them for not bringing energy to everything they do, but if your image is a Energizer/Duracell Bunny on speed, you need a song reflecting that image. Waterline was far too meek.

All in all, I was especially happy to see Iceland, Romania, Denmark and Moldova make it to the finale. Unfortunately, my favorite from this semi-final was eliminated. I absolutely loved Finland's contribution.

Semi-final 2
Serbia - Synonym: Well worthy of a ticket to the grande finale, this was one of the most genuine performances of semi-final 2. Simplicity is underrated, sometimes all you need is a good artist singing a good song. Having said all this, Serbia was not one of my favorites, but it had more to do with genre than anything else.
F.Y.R. Macedonia - Crno i Belo: I'm not sure I understood this song. To me, it felt more like a medley of a handful songs, rather than one coherent one. Also, I wasn't too fond of the artist's voice.
Malta - This is the Night: Cheesy is not usually a positive word. Being cheesy in a cheesy world makes you blend in, but it still doesn't make it good. However, once in a while, cheesy can translate into catchy and Malta did just that. As cheesy as this was, I couldn't help but smile. I'm quite happy about seeing this in the finale, though I'm sure I'll grow tired of it really fast.
Ukraine - Be My Guest: Sometimes when you listen to a brand new song, you have the feeling that you have heard it before. I have, in fact, heard this before but with the title "When Love Takes Over" by David Guetta feat. Kelly Rowland. The similarities were blatant, in other worlds, Be My Guest, doesn't necessarily fit the Eurovision Song Contest stage, but I'm sure people all over Europe will party to it this summer.
Sweden - Euphoria: I'm not sure how I should comment on this. I'll just say that I haven't been this proud of our contribution in many, many years. Go Loreen!
Turkey - Love Me Back: I surprised myself, I really liked this. Without a doubt one of my top 10 songs this year and I can't even explain why. There was just something about this song, especially the chorus, that appealed to me, for some strange reason.
Estonia - Kuula: My favorite ballad this year. It wasn't very orignal and it did sound awfully familiar, but then I think that's the curse of many ballads in general. The song was pleasant and the artist looked his part. I think what made it stand out to me was his voice. It's not always you get an artist with a nice voice who knows how to sing but when you do, it makes the world of a difference.
Norway - Stay: Dear neighbors, how I wish I liked this more than I do. It's not terrible, it's not even bad, but the artist Tooji needs to work on his singing and I can't get over how feminine they choreographed his dance. But it's still better than many other contributions and I can't help but feel happy about Norway making it to the finale, for no other reason than them being Norway.
Bosnia-Herzegovina - Korake Ti Znam: Nope, this did nothing for me. One word: Boring!
Lithuania - Love is Blind: If Malta succeeded in translating cheesy into catchy, Lithuania took cheesy and added some extra cheese and then some. The song was over the top cliché and it was further exaggerated by the singer Donny Montell, his moves and his dancing. His poor singing didn't help. The cheese-fest wasn't just bad, it was almost offensive.

In summary, semi-final 2 was a mixed bag of goodies. I guess I wished Slovakia would have made the cut, but I didn't care enough to be disappointed. Obviously, I loved Loreen, because the song was great, she is wonderful and because I'm Swedish. I'm a bit nervous about her being listed as the favorite to win, but I'm cautiously hopeful.

I should also mention the six countries automatically qualified to the grand finale. They have not performed live yet, so it's difficult to judge them fairly:

France - Echo: This interests me. Maybe because I'm intrigued by the artist, Anggun. She has a very neat voice and look. I feel like I would like to know more. The song itself is catchy yet a little bit different, so I suspect I will like it, even live.
Spain - Quédate Conmigo: Spain is one of the countries that makes me cringe each year, cause they have had many questionable contributions in the past. Given their track-record, I was pleasantly surprised this year. This is not a favorite of mine, but it sounds good and the artist can sing.
Germany - Standing Still: This is the most radio-friendly song in this year's competition. That is a huge compliment. As much as I love the Eurovision Song Contest, I know most of the songs wouldn't survive in the competitive world of radio and records sales. The German contribution might not be as exciting or glittery as others, but it is a complete package and it's nice to be able to relax and enjoy a good song without having to worry about where it might go next.
United Kingdom - Love Will Set You Free: You never know what the UK has to offer and this year they have prepared yet another surprise. The 76 year old Engelbert Humperdnick is taking us back to the British roots with this ballad. His voice is surprisingly crisp and pleasant, and I appreciate the song for being so distinctively British. Not a winner, but I'm sure I'll happily sing along to this tune in the future.
Italy - L'Amore E Femmina: I hope this will sound as good live. If it does, this will be one of my favorites this year. Flirting with the past, this song is still undoubtedly modern. I like it!

Who will win? I have no idea, but I hope Sweden and Loreen will. Within 24 hours we will know and Eurovision Song Contest 2012 will have its winner!

Monday, May 21, 2012


What would a trip to Japan be without a visit to Tokyo? Probably good enough, but it wouldn't be as spectacular and wonderfully unique. During our five days in Tokyo my husband and I experienced a whole variety of new and different things. Given that we only had five days, we chose to focus on things most appealing to us, knowing that the city could cater to any interest there is. So, let me introduce Tokyo seen through our eyes, one neighborhood at the time.

Just waking around in the Shinjuku district is fascinating, as most guide books will tell you. But three things in particular stood out to us. Firstly, the Shinjuku metro station is massive. The station average over 3.5 million commuters every day. We found ourselves there in rush hour and it was truly an exceptional experience. I probably would have enjoyed it more, if I planned to be there to watch the spectacle rather than trying to navigate through the masses with a specific destination in mind.

Secondly, just by the Shinjuku station you'll find Takashimaya Times Square. In the building you'll find  Tokyu Hands, which turned out to be my favorite store in Japan. Image, eight floors of things you can't live without and things you never knew you needed (or wanted). Crazy kitchen utensils, appliances, make-up, pet supplies, stickers, bikes etc. all in the same store. There are a couple of Tokyu Hands in the city, but this seems to be the easiest one to shop at.

Thirdly and most importantly, The Capcom Café. For those of you who don't know Capcom, it's the gaming company behind games like Street Fighter, Tekken, Resident Evil, Phoenix Wright and many others. If you already know Capcom, you should be pretty excited by now. The Capcom café is located in Shinjuku's "red-light district" Kabukicho. You get a two hour time slot during which you can eat, drink, game and participate in several skits conducted by the waitstaff of the café. All the items on the menu are inspired and named after a video game character. We shared a Ryu and a Kazuya drink, ate some Phoenix Wright pasta and a Dhalsim curry baked potato. If you're a gaming enthusiasts like us, this is the place to be.

Harajuku is probably my favorite district in Tokyo. To me, it had the perfect combination of international high-fashion, urban design, crazy Japanese street fashion and picturesque alleyways full of flowers and small coffeeshops.

The best way to experience the pretty and urban vibe of Harajuku is to walk down Cat Street and it's surrounding alleyways. While in this area you might want to make a stop at Ra.a.g.f (Rabbit And Grow Fat). It's one of Tokyo's rabbit cafés. For 300 yen you get one beverage and 30 minutes to hang out with bunnies. We were lucky enough to have our coffee accompanied by a litter of one month old bunnies. ADORABLE!! Or as the Japanese would say "KAWAII". Another patron at the rabbit café had a slightly hysterical breakdown when she saw the bunnies. A literal cute-overload.

When visiting Harajuku there is another must. You must take a stroll on Takeshita-dori. It's the perfect place to get a glimpse of Japanese street fashion. One can't be anything but fascinated and impressed by the carefully orchestrated looks that are put together in meticulous ways. After a walk down Takeshita-dori, the unusual seemed mundane, the unique had turned average and the spectacular was nothing more than the expected.

We didn't spend too much time exploring the Shibuya district. It looked like a fascinating area and I'm sure it has a lot to offer, but we simply ran out of time. The only thing we took a closer look at was the famous Shibuya crossing. One of the most recognized images of Tokyo is of an insanely busy pedestrian intersection. That would Shibuya crossing. An estimated 100 000 people pass through the intersection, every hour! After have been there, that estimate doesn't feel a least bit exaggerated.

Roppongi was another area we didn't have enough time to explore. However, I do have one recommendation, the Mori Tower observation deck.

Walking around the popular shopping district, sampling foods at the big department stores, visiting the Sony Building and buying cloths at Uniqlo would have been fun enough, but Ginza had much more to offer.

You might have heard of the Tsukiji Fish Market and its famous tuna auction. It is always mentioned on Tokyo must visit lists. After have been there, I will have to agree. It was well worth getting up at 3.30 am, getting there by 4.15 am and standing in line until 5.25 am, when we were allowed into the auction. Then eating the freshest sushi imaginable at 6.30 am was the perfect way to round up a morning at the fish market. I would highly recommend you to stick around or return to the fish market, to experience the Intermediate Wholesale area, which opens at 9 am. Bring your camera!

Any guidebook will tell you that Akihabara is the electronics district of Tokyo. But before you jump to to the conclusions that Akihabara just caters to fans of Best Buy and Fry's Electronics, you should know that while Akihabara might have started off in electronics, it has evolved way beyond its simple beginnings. Akihabara is the perfect place to explore the more "indulgent" side of Japanese culture. The streets are filled with video gaming halls, toy stores, UFO catcher machines, maid cafés, pachinko parlors, capsule vending machines and, of course, electronic shops. I realize that the list of things I just mentioned might need further explanation. If you're unfamiliar with any of terms, I recommend you to Google it, it's fascinating stuff. Make sure to visit Akihabara after the sun sets, when the neon lights are a spectacle in itself.

Tokyo Vicinity
Tokyo has seemingly endless amount of things to offer. Even with the limited amount to time we had, we decided to spend one day in the Tokyo vicinity, rather than in Tokyo city. This was by no means a random decision, we had a very specific goal in mind, The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.

The Ghibli Museum is the home of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki's wonderful anime creations. Master creator Hayao Miyazaki is often referred to as Japan's Walt Disney, which is an inaccurate description. I'm a big fan of Disney and love much of what they do, but to me, Disney is entertainment, Studio Ghibli is art and fantasy. If you're not familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's work, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, I highly recommend you to get on it. But either way, if you want to revisit the feeling of childhood wonders, The Ghibli Museum offers that in abundance.

On our way back from The Ghibli Museum, we took the opportunity to visit the Broadway Nakano Mall in Nakano. What an experience it was. The mall sold anything and everything. In one store they sold really expensive Rolex watches, next to it was a dollar store and next to that was a restaurant. With no general idea or sense of departments, exploring the mall felt like an endless line fo surprises. Broadway Nakano has another branch in Akihabara which is smaller but more conveniently located.

Top 3 Must-visits
I'm sure you've already figured out how much I enjoyed Tokyo. We had five days to spend and we still ran out of time. But if I had to narrow it down to one single day in Tokyo, doing three things I would start the day at the Tsukiji Fish Market and then walk around in Harajuku, making sure I didn't miss Takeshita-dori. As the night falls, I would spend the reminder of the day in Akihabara, indulging in whatever tickles your fancy.

Monday, May 14, 2012

From Kyoto to Yudanaka

I can promise you that this blog post will be long, but I'll do my very best to keep it as concise as possible. I'll simply write briefly about my favorite things my husband and I did in each city and try to stay away from things you can read about in any random guide book.

If you can't find a good/affordable hotel in Kyoto, make sure to check the surrounding cities. We stayed in  Ishiyama, just 10 min by local train from Kyoto station. Very convenient.

We spent two full days in Kyoto (4 nights) and we were lucky enough to arrive in the middle of the sakura season (cherry blossoms). So our impression of Kyoto is very much dominated by the breath taking beauty of a city in bloom. Most guide books will lead you to important Temples, the Imperial Palace, parks, neighborhoods etc. We ran out of time before we got to the eastern parts of Kyoto, but most of the important landmarks we saw in Kyoto was well worth a visit.

One temple that was not mentioned was Otani Hombyo, located between Kyoto Station and the Kiyomizu Temple. Otani Hombyo might be no more than an average temple, but if you walk through it and into the winding streets on the left of and behind the temple (leading up to the Kiyomizu Temple), the seemingly hidden burial grounds are simply mind-blowing.

My favorite park in Kyoto was at the Toji Temple, but I have a sneaking feeling it was all due to the cherry blossoms. According to our guide book, Toji Temple is the tallest wooden structure in Japan, but else from that, it's barely worth a visit. But if you're in Kyoto during the sakura, it is utterly amazing.

Unfortunately, we had terrible weather during the one day we spent in Osaka. So, what do you do when the weather is bad? You eat and shop (or at least window shop). The most memorable thing about Osaka (not including the food) was the pod hotel we stayed at. Men and women were not allowed to stay on the same floor so it might not have been the most romantic accommodation for a couple on their honeymoon. But for the experience of it, we said our good byes and went out separate ways for the night. Next morning, I woke up, switched on the tv and to my astonishment, the Moomins were on tv (Finish book/cartoon from the mid 1940s). After one night in Osaka, our trip continued to Hiroshima (and Miyajima).

I have not been to many places where the sense of actually walking in history is as potent as in Hiroshima. After have been there I'm convinced that it is a place every person should visit at some point in their life. If you're a peace-loving person like me, it is with a very heavy heart you take part of the city's history from within its own body. Everyone knows about the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, but when walking in the Peace Memorial Park or visiting the Peace Memorial Museum you can actually feel it.

To most people, Hiroshima will always be synonymous with the atomic bomb. To me, Hiroshima has transformed into an ambassador of Peace and a hope of a future without nuclear weapons.

When planning a trip to Hiroshima, I would recommend you to plan an extra day to explore Miyajima Island. After a short train ride followed by an even shorter boat ride, you'll find yourself on a very pretty island where tame deers run free. You should know that the deers are everywhere and they really like paper, so be careful carrying paper around or you'll end up losing parts of it to hungry forest creatures, just like I did. 

If you're short on time you can explore the Itsukushima Shrine and it's surroundings, but if you have all day, I would recommend you to walk/climb up Mount Misen. It's a decent climb and a good work-out so dress appropriately. Mind you that I did the walk wearing a maxi-dress, TOMS shoes and a leather jacket in pouring rain and was miserable during most of the climb, but I still recommend you to do it. That should speak volumes.

Yudanaka (and Shibu Onsen)
Most people choose to visit Yudanaka for one very specific reason, the Snow Monkeys at Jihokudani Yaenkoen. So did we, and  boy, are we happy we did! The Snow Monkeys hanging around their onsen (hotspring) were adorable and highly entertaining. I could have stayed there all day. Another perk of staying in the Yudanaka area were in fact the onsens. We stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) which had its own onsen but we also took the opportunity book a private onsen at Tomi No Yu which had a spectacular view. 

Between Yudanaka and the Snow Monkeys you'll find Shibu Onsen, a small mountain village with multiple onsens. There is a "onsen scavenger hunt" you can do (we did), but it is more than enough to aimlessly wander the streets and just enjoy the surroundings. One thing you shouldn't miss is the local sake and beer brewery. They have free tastings and sell some really nice sakes in store. 

While staying in Yudanaka, we took the opportunity to visit Obuse, a village just a few train stops from Yudanaka. In Obuse we were pleasently surprised to find the Hokusai Museum. Katsushika Hokusai is the artist behind The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which happens to be my husbands all time favorite painting. Another unexpected surprise Obuse had in store was ice-cream. The chestnut ice-cream we found was the best ice-cream I've had in my life!

Besides the Snow Monkeys, onsens and Obuse, our 4 night stay at Yudanaka would not have been the same without the amazing Mr. Ichiro Yumoto, his wife and the wonderful ryokan they ran and owned. So friendly and helpful. Mr Ichiro Yumoto drives his guests to whatever place they want to visit and he only hopes for a smile in return. So, if you ever find yourself planning to visit Yudanaka, make sure to stay at Shimaya Ryokan.

After Yudanaka, our honeymoon continued to our last and final stop, Tokyo. An eclectic city like Tokyo needs a introduction of its own. So, stay tuned, to find out more about Tokyo.