Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Oh, Okinawa

We have arrived in lovely Okinawa, where it is wonderfully warm (mid 70s) and pretty. Want to know the best thing about Okinawa? AMERICA.

Look at how American sized that root beer is. Okinawa is the only place you can find A&W restaurants in Japan. In general, root beer is incredibly unpopular here. As a cruel joke on my students I once had them try it and write a review of how it tasted. One girl ran from class gagging.

All America is awesome joking aside, it is a little strange to see American military types wandering around a Japanese city, but thankfully they don't dominate the place quite as much as I had been led to believe.

We've so far struck out in the vegetarian restaurant department. We were really looking forward to going to a vegetarian Taiwanese place that allegedly had a menu of more than 80 faux-meat dishes, but it seems to have closed permanently. Then we tried another place and found it closed for the holiday (it's the Emperor's birthday). We did manage to find an Okinawan place with enough stuff to keep us filled. I'm not a huge fan of goya (Okinawan bitter gourd), but if you mix it with enough tofu and sauce it'll do the trick. We've also been enjoying some sweets. This thing is sort of a Twinkie with sweet potato where the cream would be, and behind it is delicious black sugar coated peanuts.

Tomorrow we're off to the aquarium and a pineapple theme park!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

SNOW!!!! and various other tidbits

It's snowing!

In typical California transplant fashion, on the first day of snow I was delighted and frolicked and skipped about joyously finding everything prettier with a little snow on it. Then on Friday the train was delayed and it was so windy the snow was blowing horizontally directly in my face. Also, Japan has an annoying lack of interest in both insulation and central heating. Thus our apartment is the same temperature inside as it is out in the snow. It is officially warmer in our refrigerator than it is in the kitchen it sits in.

A couple of weeks ago Greg and I took the JLPT 4, which is the lowest level Japanese proficiency test. We were already at the level of the this test when we first arrived, so we're both pretty sure we passed. Most of the people in our Japanese class took the level 3, but because my listening skills are rather terrible I think I'm happy with the decision to go for the sure thing rather than the "maybe if I'm lucky." If I can get my listening (and speaking, even though that's not tested) up to snuff, I hope I can maybe skip a level next year and go to the new "2.5" test.

Friday night was my school's bonenkai, a traditional year end party, the purpose of which is to drink until you forget all the year's troubles. It was at an onsen, but I managed to avoid the whole awkwardly taking a bath with coworkers thing by having my dip just 15 minutes before the start of dinner. After dinner it was on to karaoke. I, as usual, declined to sing. I find it amusing that when I tell people I can't sing they always say "I can't sing either, it's ok," and then 10 minutes later they're on stage singing brilliantly. I have yet to meet anyone here worse at carrying a tune than me. There was a bingo game and the first three prizes were pretty nice: a flat screen TV, a bike, and a digital camera. Beyond that were mystery prizes wrapped up. Naturally I got 4th place and had to go for a mystery box which of course was filled with 30 packs of meat filled instant ramen. Sigh. I had a lot of opportunities to practice my horrible Japanese before conking out in my room. The teachers must have stayed up at least an hour later than me and drank a ton more than me and yet they were all up at 6:30 am bright eyed and genki, waking me for breakfast.

What amuses me most about enkais is that because of Japan's very strict drunk driving laws (which prohibit you from having even a sip of alcohol before getting behind the wheel) the teachers usually take the school bus. I think that as a high schooler I would have been quite amused by the idea of my teachers, drunk and rowdy, cruising down the highway in the school bus late at night.

On Wednesday we're headed for Okinawa for a hopefully warm and pleasant Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Odds and ends

After a couple of months in employment limbo (I had been hired but wouldn't start until 2010), I have now been hired at a job that's given me immediate work and am actually going around to various places in Ishikawa and Toyama to impart my English-speaking-abilities and exotic gaijin-ness on various impressionable Japanese youngsters. I imagine I'll have more to say on this soon, but I wanted to share a couple of things I've found since I've been out and about a lot more.

First was something I found at a mall arcade. Gambling in the form of slot machines and pachinko parlors is ubiquitous here in Japan, and often you'll find it side-by-side in the same arcades with games meant for kids and teenagers. You'll occasionally see some surprising and odd versions of these machines (I can think of Super Mario-themed gambling machines just off the top of my head), but I've never seen a Pac-man one before. This is at the Apita in Toyama City:

This next photo is a little hard to read. It's a sign at a train station in Komatsu, Ishikawa, and it says in both English and Japanese: "DO NOT ENTER THE TRACK. When you drop something on the track, please tell the station staff immediately."

What's funny is that this station, like a lot of non-major stations in suburban and rural areas, didn't appear to actually have any station staff. All there is to it is basically a little shed on each side of the track where you can buy your ticket from a machine, plus a public toilet and bike rack. So, implicit in this sign's message is "If you drop something on the track and don't want to risk getting yourself pancaked like a cartoon character on the front of the train, you're SOL."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Step 1: Unfold. Step 2: Ride.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back in the US! Things are decidedly more sedate here. It's already Friday morning on our clock, for one thing.

One issue I thought deserved some re-visiting was the issue of bicycles. Yes, I gave up my dream of the impossibly-cheap folding bike. But! I did manage to settle for the somewhat-more-believably-cheap folding bike (or, if you prefer, oritatami jitensha), at our local Sports Depot. Check out what $150 gets you:

That is, it gets you surprising quality. The Ignio model at Sports Depot was the next-cheapest option to the $100 bike I could find. I had the choice of orange, white, or black-with-sparkles, so I think that choice was clear.

The way it works is you take the above locking mechanism in the middle of the frame, turn the silver handle around, and pull up. Then, boom! Turn around the handlebars and it folds in like so:

Alternate angle:

It has a couple of neat features. Unlike Andrea's bike (heh heh), I've got 6 gears to work with! Hers is completely gearless, which she good-naturedly reminds me whenever I speed past her on a bike with wheels 1/3 the size of hers.

One advantage her bike has over mine, though, is that her bell is more traditional than mine (pull the lever, and it rings several times in quick succession). Mine is a little cheaper, and thus a little harder to operate. You flick the little plastic bit, and it dings the bell one time.

You're supposed to use it when you're obstructed in front by pedestrians who are moving too slow and/or taking up too much room on the sidewalk. I'm generally too timid to use it, anyway; you attract enough weird looks from older people just by being not-Japanese. Instead, I've become a fast student in the art of delicate maneuvering between people.

Andrea's bike also has its own built in locking mechanism on the rear tire. I just have a standard separate lock-and-key.

Generally, it's enough to lock the rear tire to the bike frame, since apparently no one would go to the effort of stealing a bike that they couldn't ride. The likelihood of our bikes getting stolen at all is very low, anyway, but Kanazawa is supposed to have a bigger bicycle theft problem than your typical Japanese city. Of course, like most bikes, mine is registered with the local police department, so if they can read my scribbly kanji handwriting, they'll know where to return it if it shows up somewhere it shouldn't.

And that's all there is to it! It's intermittently cold and rainy these days, but there's still occasion to pull it out and go for a ride. A couple of our favorite restaurants are easier to get to by bike than bus, so it's helpful in that respect. Hell, just getting downtown takes the same amount of time, so might as well get some exercise out of it.

Of course, on rainy or goddamn-air-feels-like-the-Arctic days, it sits, helpfully folded up, in this corner of our (inexplicably astroturfed) balcony, sharing space with our massive air conditioning unit, a silver panel covering an emergency ladder hole, and several tension rods meant for hanging laundry.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Have to go in Japan? Expect the unexpected.

Via the great blog An Englishman in Osaka comes this inexplicable restroom sign:

All I can say is that at this point, I'm very rarely surprised, but almost always amused, by this sort of thing. Pointlessly decorative cartoon characters are de rigueur on all signage, regardless of purpose. The thing that's so peculiar about this sign is that the cartoon characters are more creepy than cute. I half-expect that giraffe to have been taken off of a wanted poster.

Of course, creepiness aside, that sign is a little more user-friendly than this one (from

Good to know! Thanks, I guess.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Natadera and getting naked.

Natadera is a combination of a Buddhist temple complex, Shinto shrine, and a wild garden located in Komatsu near the Kaga border in Ishikawa. The most remarkable thing about it are the tunnels carved into stone that you can explore.

Natadera is famous for its autumn foliage, so last weekend Greg and I headed down there to have a look.

It's a lovely day trip from Kanazawa. More photos on flickr, naturally. We had also made it a goal to go to an onsen while down there, as the area is rather famous for them. We wanted to go to Yamanaka, which looks lovely and was recommended by a few people, but it turns out there is no way to directly get there from Natadera even though they are not that far apart. We saw that the tourist loop bus we had taken to the temple also went to Yumenoyu so we decided to give it a shot. It was, ummm, a bit awkward. It really felt more like going to a crowded YMCA pool where the water is really warm and everybody's naked. And for some reason 80 year old ladies really like to sit next to me. I think we'll do a bit more research and find something more relaxing next time.

On Monday I had two aunts and an uncle swing by for a visit, which was great. It was wonderful to see familiar faces. Who's next to visit? You?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Crazy soda addendum

As Andrea helpfully reminded me, I would be remiss to point out what is probably the weirdest soda of the bunch that I've tried thus far:

This stuff is called Curry Ramune. You might be familiar with Ramune in its normal form, which is a sweet, syrupy drink that you add carbonation to by popping in a little marble at the top. This stuff, if it wasn't obvious, is curry flavored, complete with offensive Indian stereotype on the label. So, not the usual grape/melon/whatever fruit flavoring you can think of that Ramune normally engages in.

They offer it (presumably as a joke) at Spice Box, our favorite little Indian restaurant in downtown Kanazawa. I was on the receiving end of a dare to try this stuff, and naturally acquiesced. I asked the head waiter about it, and he warned me that it wasn't very spicy. So, of course, I had to try the extra-spicy version! He helpfully explained that the extra spicy version wasn't particularly spicy, either, given the delicate Japanese palate.

So, yes, I tried it-- and it wasn't half bad. It was more like a strong ginger ale than anything, but with a little added spice kick. Despite its pseudo-Indian-ness, it felt like an odd accompaniment to our South Indian-style dosas, sort of like having root beer with sushi. But if you ever get the chance to try it, might as well; it's not going to set your throat on fire, and you can rub it in other people's faces that you've tried something they haven't, even if they don't especially care one way or the other.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Crazy soda roundup

Surprisingly, Japan doesn't really have the breadth of strange soda flavors that its other innumerable culinary oddities might lead you to believe. What it lacks in breadth, though, it more than makes up for in terms of depth; flavors that don't quite reach Jones soda proportions of intentional weirdness, but that you would never even think someone would make.

First off, we have the special Pepsi flavor that was available when we arrived: Pepsi Shiso.
Shiso, for the uninformed (which included myself until recently), is a minty herb known as Perilla or Japanese basil in English. I was a little dubious, but felt like I should try it anyway; turns out I was right to be dubious! Not outright disgusting, but definitely not something I'd have again.

The next one is odd:

I guess this was a summer flavor that had stuck around long enough to be put on sale. I tried it, assuming based on the picture that it was candy apple; and yes, it did have a very strongly candy apple-like taste. But if you actually translate what it says on the label, it says it's candied apricot. It tasted a lot more like candy apple to me, though, so either it was somehow mislabeled candy apple soda, or it was a candy apricot soda that really failed at tasting like apricot.

Finally, here it is, my white whale of soda flavors:

Azuki Pepsi! If you know me, you've probably experienced my azuki obsession in one way or another. Azuki bean paste mochi, azuki popsicles, azuki soymilk... if it's azuki-flavored, I have to have it immediately-- which is why hearing about Azuki Pepsi so greatly piqued my interest. This flavor is new but it's been around over a month, and I've looked and looked and couldn't find it anywhere... until tonight, when we visited a grocery store called Valor for the first time. I nearly freaked out in the soda aisle; there it was, finally!

So, flavor verdict on the soda I couldn't find for so long? ...Eh. It's alright. It tastes more like Cherry Coke at first, but there's a distinct azuki aftertaste. So, not amazing, but not exactly worth going out of your way for. Oh well.

Overall, kind of a mixed bag in the weird soda flavor department. It's a lot more middle-of-the-road than the infamous Jones Soda holiday packs, which range from extremely delicious to vomit-inducing (Pepto bismol flavor, anyone?).

Speaking of those holiday packs, there's a new update of the perennial Turkey and Gravy soda... Tofurky soda! I don't really get the point, because the original Turkey soda was a vegan imitation flavor, anyway. I am dying to know what it tastes like, though, but they apparently don't ship to Japan. Sad.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In which I talk about food...again....

The high school I work at has a rather massive farm in the back. Occasionally the agriculture students will come to the teacher's room and sell what they've grown. Because I'm so desperate to have the students like me I typically buy whatever they have whether I need it or not. This is how I ended up with nine persimmons. I ended up vegan-izing a baked persimmon pudding recipe and cooked it in the rice cooker.

One of the advantages of experimenting with foods I've never eaten before is that you can't tell how off the mark it is. I thought vegan rice cooker pudding was rather tasty.

Next we had to figure out what to do with chayote. I have no idea why they had chayote at my school. It's a Central American vegetable. Greg managed to make them into a quite lovely soup, though.

It's sort of fun that being here has led not only to experimenting a lot with Japanese foods, but to trying out interesting recipes from all over.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Japanese melon bread, please

Before coming here, I thought a lot about all the foods from home I would miss, but never put much thought into the idea that I would eventually become enamored with certain Japan only treats that I will miss when I come home. My first obsession that I will surely miss is available at a bakery at the train station.
This is a wonderfully redundant creation consisting of melon bread filled with melon cream, and it is awesome. You quickly learn in Japan that any bread that has enough room for cream in it will in fact have cream in it. It is usually awful Hostess-esque white fluffy goop, but the melon cream is luscious and subtle. I'm utterly addicted.

I've heard November is supposed to be a wet month in Kanazawa, but I had no idea the temperature would immediately drop 20 degrees and start pouring the moment it struck midnight at the start of the month. It's a chilly 41 degrees tonight, but nothing makes me quickly forget waiting for a train in the freezing rain without a jacket as quickly as a post-work melon bread and coffee soy milk.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

La Toyama deliciosa

Not to brag, but we have a lot of great amenities in Kanazawa-- much more so than I was expecting before we got here. Among them is restaurants; we're no Tokyo or Osaka, but we've got a surprising diversity and variety of cuisine for such a small city.

Sorely lacking in our restaurant scene, though, is Mexican, or anything even vaguely imitating Latin American food. Coming from a place where we were a 10 minute walk to 5 dollar burritos the size of your thigh, it was little rough to go without it. I've found a taco shell kit imported from Australia that's alright (particularly if you happen upon a ripe avocado), and we bulk-ordered black beans, but somehow, home-made approximations of taqueria food just aren't the same.

So imagine our surprise when we found out that there actually is a Mexican restaurant just one prefecture over-- in Toyama City, of all places!

Toyama is kind of the red-headed stepchild of the Hokuriku region. It's a mainly industrial town that got flattened in World War II, so there's not much to speak of historically, architecturally, culturally, or pretty much anything-ally*. It doesn't help that it's butt-ugly, even by Japanese city standards, and seemed pretty dead even on a Friday night. But somehow, that didn't stop us. We came to Toyama determined to experience all that there is, and we pretty much did; we went to La Yuuki!

Presumably the only Mexican restaurant for several hundred miles, La Yuuki has maybe 10 seats and is staffed solely by a friendly Japanese guy named Hiro who speaks good English. He's never been to any Spanish-speaking country; he learned Mexican-style cooking from a guy he knows in Tokyo who also works at a Mexican restaurant. But indeed, he learned it well.

Our meal began with home-made tortilla chips and guacamole-- incredible! Maybe it's withdrawal talking, but these were some of the best tortilla chips I've had in my life. And the guacamole was perfect! Rich, creamy avocado in a country where you're lucky to find one that isn't green and hard as steel.

Hiro graciously accommodated our dietary preferences, as his otherwise-vegetarian dishes often have ground beef added to them. Andrea had a chili-bean burrito, and I had spinach-mushroom enchiladas; both were tasty and surprisingly on the mark, considering how hard it is to find authentic ingredients here. We had a seat at the bar, right in front of his kitchen; we got to see him at work, and he clearly knew what he was doing.

Toyama is about an hour on the local train, or half that on the express. With this in mind, next time we have the craving, I think I know where we'll be headed.

*I should mention that Toyama has another advantage over Kanazawa: unlike our slow, confusing, and inefficient bus network, they have what appears to be a functioning and useful light rail system, where a fleet of both modern and old-streetcar-style vehicles have their own dedicated lanes. Kanazawa apparently has enough money for giant train station decorations but not enough for a functioning transit system in a city where people would actually use it. Having been stuck in traffic on a Kanazawa bus, I can tell you that I certainly would!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like, it's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good

As Greg mentioned, I recently acquired some new wheels. There are a few rivers running through Kanazawa, and I've been wanting to take a bike ride along one of them for a while now. Like most Japanese bikes, my new ride is a single speed number completely lacking in suspension, but Kanazawa is pretty flat so it's not much trouble. Plus, it makes up for it by having an adorable basket, light, and a built on tire lock.
The river has a wonderful bike path along side it. Along the way I spotted one of Kanazawa's very own love hotels. I imagine its motto is "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and let them have sordid affairs in hotels you can rent by the hour!"
Eventually the path dumps you in a nature reserve that also has a water slide park in it. It's eerily closed and empty this time of year.

Other random sights along the way included a woman walking her cat (strangely common here) and an old man who was playing fetch with himself. He would pick up a tennis ball and bounce it out in front of him and then walk to wherever it landed and repeat the process. What?

Finally, after about 10km, I hit the Sea of Japan. Sorry folks, no views of the Koreans.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The impermanence of things

The well ran dry for a bit when it came to blog post ideas. Then, after an impromptu trip to hardware/furniture/bicycle megastore Musashi, something new and exciting to talk about popped into my head-- bikes!

I'm one of the rare few who own neither a car nor a bicycle. I don't know why-- I used to have a bike and rode it pretty frequently as a kid until around age 12, when teenage suburban laziness set in and thus I had no real interest in going anywhere if it wasn't by car. One I hit 16 and could drive myself, forget it!

Around that time, my bike riding just sort of fell by the wayside and never resumed, even after I-- involuntarily, due to a reckless tailgater-- gave up the car permanently. I lived in a city with good-enough public transit and enough things within walking distance that it might have sped things up a bit, but it wasn't really necessary. And it didn't help that I was slightly terrified of San Francisco drivers' recklessness and all-too-frequent blindness to anything crossing the street.

So what better place to get back into bike riding than Japan? Even in Kanazawa, which is very sprawly and car-oriented outside of the dense city center, you will find that Japan is one of the, if not the most bike friendly country in the developed world. Bikes are everywhere; they're cheap, they're plentiful, and (best of all for a chicken like me!) you can ride them on the sidewalk, avoiding all that crazy street traffic. This is especially good for me, as our building is situated on a fairly busy 4-lane street on a direct route from the train station, with a fairly high speed limit and all of the craziness that might suggest. Biking on our street is not for the faint of heart, although I occasionally see it happen.

Like I was saying, Andrea and I happened to be at Musashi-- an odd big box store that resembles a cross between Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Ikea-- when we saw their outdoor bicycle display. She immediately fell in love with one cute little model with a basket on the front. Meanwhile, I became interested in the folding bikes, simply for ease of storage and the possibility of shipping it home later on when we move back to the States. Then, I saw it-- one folding bike, a Musashi house brand, that looked just as good as the others. Best of all, it was only 9500 yen brand new, or around 100 bucks. That was by far the lowest price I'd seen on one of its kind! Considering that we've found it next to impossible to find used bikes for sale anywhere in Kanazawa, this was probably as good as it would get, price and quality-wise.

We both had to wait for our respective paydays to return to claim our models of choice. That day (today) finally came, and we took off with anticipation to Higashi-Kanazawa station, just down the road from Musashi. When we came up to the bicycle area, our hearts sank-- our favorite models were gone, taken off display, presumably meaning "sold out." While Andrea found one close enough to her original favorite, all of the other remaining bikes they had were almost twice as expensive as the one I had my eye on, which is more than I'm willing to spend at this point. It never crossed our mind that they might be gone so quickly, although perhaps it should have.

Despite being a wealthy country with an endless array of every conceivable consumer good, Japan has an odd habit of pulling certain things off the shelves for no reason, or intentionally limiting supply, or making things available for a limited time only. This is most obvious at the grocery store-- a certain product might be available for 2 weeks straight in great abundance, then mysteriously disappear for weeks, then suddenly reappear for a few days, then disappear for a few days, etc. This happened with soy ice cream at the train station's grocery store, a good I happen to know isn't in particularly high demand in this country. But it's true of lots of other things-- just because there's 20 of something innocuous today doesn't mean it will be there tomorrow.

The lesson, kids? When you're in Japan, don't take any purchasable good for granted, because it may very well disappear for no discernible reason whatsoever, especially at the least opportune time. I'll keep my eye out for another great bike deal, but I'm not keeping my hopes up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Round one, fight!

If you grew up in the Bay Area, you've probably been to at least one Scandia birthday party. You might have thought it was fun. You were wrong. It was not fun. This is due to the fact that Scandia is not Round 1, which only exists in Japan.

Round 1 is Scandia on steroids. I don't even know where to begin. For about eleven bucks you get 90 minutes of unlimited access to an arcade, ping pong, bowling, roller skating, mini motorcycles, mini golf, badminton, fishing (yes, live fishing), basketball,
batting cages, karaoke, virtual golf, billiards, archery, volleyball, tennis, and even a mechanical bull. Yes, we rode it.

Inexplicably, Round 1's mascot is a white lady in a feather headdress.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Melor Mejor

Wednesday was pretty dull at school. All my classes were canceled so that students could prepare for the school festival, so I basically alternated my time between saying hi to the kids, studying Japanese, and staring into space. Then around two an English teacher walked by my desk and said "the typhoon will be at midnight," and then kept on walking. This was the first I'd heard about this, so I was a little surprised to say the least.

At three the principal announced that students didn't have to come to school Thursday. My American mind immediately went "oh, I don't have work tomorrow. Pajamas and video games, here I come!" This is so predictably American, in fact, that a teacher turned to me and said "the students won't come, but the teachers still come to watch the school. In America, this is strange, isn't it?" So I resigned myself to another day of sitting at my desk--or perhaps holding up trees that were about to fall or repairing roof leaks or whatever else the purpose of having teachers at school during a typhoon is supposed to be.

It's rainy and windy now, but I guess it headed east so we haven't had it that bad. Just seems like what would be called a regular old storm in the Bay Area.

On a semi-related note, at the end of the day a teacher I've never spoken to before came up to me and said in impeccable English, "Do you understand tomorrow's schedule? It is because of the typhoon. In America, this is called a hurricane, isn't it?" This is my first secret English speaker encounter. I'm sort of hoping all of the other teachers are secret impeccable English speakers too, and they will slowly reveal themselves to me, as my Japanese doesn't seem to be improving at all. We've finally signed up for classes, though!

More adventures in the kitchen

Okonomiyaki, for the uninitiated, is a big fried vegetable pancake with various ingredients and toppings, most popular in the Kansai region of Japan (particularly Osaka) and in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki restaurants are frequently equipped with hot plates directly in front of the customers so you can assemble your own ingredients and fry it however you like.

Given that okonomiyaki batter typically includes egg (and possibly some type of dashi, a broth that more often than not contains fish), I'm not likely to experience the joy of restaurant okonomiyaki any time soon. But why should that stop me? Thanks to my trusty cookbook, I can prepare some of my own.

Here's the result:

This the second time I've made okonomiyaki. This time, I included sweet corn kernels, fresh shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and cabbage. Slathered on top are a store-bought tonkatsu sauce, which is kind of like a mild barbecue sauce, and a home-made tangy mayonnaise that uses silken tofu as a base, also taken from this book.

I was surprised how much easier it seemed the second time. I'd removed a step by using store-bought sauce instead of making my own, but the first effort left the kitchen counter covered in flour and cabbage bits. This time, things were a lot more orderly, which my OCD-addled brain is much happier about. The other thing was that the mushrooms came out really juicy and tender, which was nice. The overall quality of various mushroom types here seems to be much better (albeit based on my limited experience with them so far!). Maybe they just match my cooking style more. Who knows?

As you can see in this Wikipedia article, there are all sorts of regional variants that involve different types of toppings (noodles, etc.) and different methods of preparation. I think I have my work cut out for me in the coming months!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Flavorful fall in Kanazawa

Soymilk has sort of been the unsung staple food in my diet. I use it in just about everything; on cereal, as a creamer in tea and coffee, in cookie and cake batter, and various other recipes... but apart from one very sugary brand from Singapore called Yeo's, I've never really been that keen on drinking the stuff by itself. It's not awful, but still not good enough to drink a glass of it unless you've had a mouthful of some rich chocolate dessert thing that you need to wash down.

I'd heard several times that the soymilk in Japan is not good. Coming here, I didn't know what to expect; on the first night we came here, we took a trip to the grocery store on the bottom floor of our building. One of the things we immediately latched on to was Cocoa Krispies (pretty the only U.S. cereal widely available here) and the only soymilk brand, which had a friendly (if all-Japanese) green and white container with the now-familiar characters that read tounyuu.

This stuff tastes pretty different from your standard U.S. brands (Silk, Vitasoy, etc.) but the effect is the same: not good enough to drink on its own, but fine as an ingredient or complement to other foods. It wasn't until we took a trip to the Hyakuban-Mart, a slightly upscale supermarket inside Kanazawa Station, that I saw how much wider the Japanese soymilk world is!

They all come in single-size cartons, and by my count there were at least a dozen flavors! Banana, strawberry, black sesame, jasmine tea, azuki bean (my favorite)... so many to choose from! I've tried almost all of them, and they're fantastic. One of the best yet is a seasonal flavor that they've just recently come out with for the fall:

That, my friends, is fried roasted sweet potato-flavored soymilk. The taste is great, but I think I love the idea of it more than anything.

The only bad part is that all of these flavored soymilks only come in these small sizes. I would probably buy a gallon of the azuki bean flavor if I could...

Speaking of sweet potato, Andrea and I had the interesting experience of being woken up at 8 AM Saturday morning by a fried sweet potato (yakiimo) vendor with one of those annoying loudspeaker vans that I thought had finally gone away. He had an oddly sad, minor key melody to promote his goods, along with lyrics very loudly proclaiming the deliciousness of his yakiimo.

So I guess this is how you tell it's fall in Japan: yakiimo everywhere. Forget leaves changing and any of that other crap.

And finally, this is how you can tell it's no longer summer in Ishikawa:

Hey, I'll take it over summer!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

But where's the super zutsuki?

Hakui is a small city about an hour north of us. (Special trivia, the city's name, 羽咋、 translates to "mouthful of feathers"). Besides a UFO museum, the city is famous for its annual Sumo festival, which we were lucky enough to attend this year.

It's in a natural outdoor amphitheater, the oldest of its kind still operating in Japan. It's an amateur tournament and totally free. We were much closer to the action than if we had spent the hundreds of dollars it takes to see a professional tournament.

Since it was an amateur tournament, some of the wrestlers were almost comically small. This little guy was quite spirited, though, and held his own in the first round.

Second round not so much.

There were some pretty spectacular throws over the course of the evening. After the final match each team carried a wrestler on their shoulders all the way to a shrine almost a mile away.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Love Hotels: cheap and surprisingly sanitary Japanese accomodation

In Japan, it's pretty common to live with your parents until you get married, but where can young couples go to escape the prying eyes of their elders? Love hotels exploded in the 90's and Osaka is the best city to find a huge variety of them. They can be rented by the hour, but, as more and more travelers are finding, they're the cheapest way to sleep a night in Japan if you want a private room a bit larger than a capsule hotel. They're also super foreigner friendly in that at many of them you don't have to make any human contact at all. Typically you walk into a lobby which is eerily empty and see a big light up display of the available rooms. Hit the button for the room you want and take your receipt to the door, which will probably be flashing. Here's the scary part: the door will lock behind you. You can't freely enter and exit the hotel, so once you're in you're in.

During the boom love hotels got outlandish. Themes can be pretty extreme, but eventually hotel owners decided that girls don't think sleeping in an exact replica of subway car is that great of an idea. Most rooms these days are less alien autopsy and more Holiday Inn. So in Osaka we decided to give the love hotel experience a go. Besides, it was a holiday and we didn't have reservations anywhere anyway.

We declined to stay at Hotel Beaver. Creeeeepy. We ended up at La Foret, which was definitely on the tamer side of things. We did, however, select the tackiest looking room (complete with zebra couch and weird blacklight patterned ceiling). It had far more amenities than any other hotel we've stayed at in Japan, (free karaoke, free video games, giant spa tub!) and at least it lacked the bed bugs of a certain temple we spent twice as much money on in Koyasan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Super fun electric excitement please ok!

Like Andrea mentioned, we spent the first few days of our vacation in Koyasan, alternately gazing at enormous temples and graveyards, fighting off insects, eating tasty shojin ryori, and getting scolded for every little mistake by a Buddhist monk with a hunchback. Once we were done there, we headed back to our original transfer point, Osaka, to take in the contrast of big city life.

Osaka is a much bigger city than Kanazawa, at about 6 or 7 times the population. As the largest municipality of the Hokuriku region, Kanazawa has most of the amenities of a large Japanese city, but we lack a lot of the esoteric niche areas and stores you'll find in Tokyo or Osaka.

We spent a large amount of our time at Osaka's Den-den Town, an area devoted to electronics stores, video game stores, arcades, collectibles, and numerous other subcultures with varying degrees of weirdness. Case in point, there was actually an entire multi-level store devoted to Gundam robot toys and models. Not my thing, but I guess it's sort of nice to know that it's there, and that a store that big can be devoted to something that specific and still be sustainable.

It was the second time we'd ever been to Den Den Town (and Osaka in general), and what we were most interested in returning to was a pair of game stores devoted primarily to the burgeoning trend of retro gaming; that is, the console systems of the 80s and 90s, such as the NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis, etc. The best known of those two stores was Super Potato, which is widely regarded as the mecca of old and rare game cartridges and disks. Not to be overlooked is Retro Game Revival, less than 100 feet down the block, which doesn't have quite as impressive a stock but generally has cheaper prices and some occasional good finds among the innumerable shelves of games you've never heard of.

Super Potato stairs

Here's a Mario statue inside Super Potato, plastered with various fliers and hand-written signs:

Mario Statue in Super Potato, Osaka

The one thing we were most excited about coming with was this:

Cocktail-style Famicom

This is a generic version of the Famicom, or the Japanese version of what we know in the US as the NES. This one happens to be shaped as a miniature cocktail-style arcade machine. Sadly, the joystick doesn't work, and probably would be too small to be useful if it did; but two of the buttons function as on/off and reset. It now sits beside our TV any time we need an NES fix, Japan style.

Of course, the machine itself is useless without games, and boy, what games we found in various used bins and crammed anonymously in endless shelves!

What you see to your left is Transformers: Mystery of Convoy. When I saw it, I thought "Cool! A Transformers game for only a buck! Might as well give it a shot." What I didn't know is that this game is notorious in Japan for how horrible it is; in particular, the game is so pointlessly difficult that you die after one hit. You get hit once, you die. You touch an enemy in any way, you die. Unless you time everything perfectly, this will happen within about 10-15 seconds of the game starting. I haven't even made it out of the first level after trying about 20 times and I'm not sure I'd be willing to try. Still, I am happy to own a piece of gaming history, even if it's only historical for being a piece of crap.

I also bought an Ultraman game for 300 yen (a little over 3 dollars). Hey, it's Ultraman... he flies around and blows stuff up, so it'll make for a fast-paced action game, right? Wrong. Turns out it's a ponderous RPG where Ultraman begins by talking on the phone in what looks like a hotel lobby, and then goes outside where he engages in molasses-slow turn based fighting against the same three enemies every 5 inches or so. Lesson learned; cheap for a reason, I guess.

The exception to the various disappointments in random games we picked up is that I found a 100-yen sumo wrestling game that I'd never heard of before. It's mostly repetitive, random button-mashing, but it's a lot more fun than either of the other games I mentioned. Unfortunately, I think the reason I may have it got it so cheap is that the graphics are glitchy, possibly due to the cartridge being damaged.

So, all in all, despite the disappointments I mentioned, I'm pretty happy with my 20 dollar faux-cocktail Famicom. It's just one more piece of evidence in my ongoing series of discovering just how much Japanese kids have it better than we ever did.

One other neat part of Den-Den town is Super Position, a tightly-packed and often-crowded store devoted to all those toys and things that are available for sale in capsule machines. Rows of machines like these are fairly common (although not as common as drink vending machines, which you can see about every 10 feet, even in very rural areas!). So, if it's ever been sold in a capsule machine in the last 2 decades, it's probably at Super Position.

While there were a lot of neat little toys, nothing really demanded that I buy it until I saw this:
That's right. It's a capsule toy of a capsule toy. It's about an inch and a half tall, and inside the upper chamber you'll find miniature capsules. And the thing actually works; if you turn the little dial, out pops a capsule. It's too small to actually contain anything, but for 3 bucks, the idea of it was too irresistible to not buy.