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!