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.