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.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Veggie Osaka adventures

I have a confession. When I go to restaurants, I don't eat Japanese food. Well, most of the time anyway. I've had some wonderful uniquely Japanese food experiences (conveyer belt sushi, okonomiyaki, etc) but a lot of the time I go for the international places, and our trip to Osaka was no exception. This entry acts as a mini-guide to vegetarian dining in Osaka.

We arrived at Namba station, conveniently close to one of our first destinations: Den Den town (Osaka's electronics, video games, and all around nerd district). Greg remarkably remembered the location of a nearby Indian restaurant. Lala had a large selection of decent tasting veggie curries, but it wasn't especially vegan friendly. Greg ended up with a yoghurt dessert he couldn't eat and the mango juice he ordered was suddenly a mango lassi when it appeared.

For dinner, we went to Axum, probably Japan's only Ethiopian place. Remarkably, the owner remembered us from our previous visit over a year ago. He didn't, however, remember that we are vegetarians so we ordered an item that had no meat listed in its ingredients but it actually had beef in it. He was kind enough to replace the dish with something we could eat. Totemo oishikatta desu yo!

The next day we intended to eat at Cafe Millet, an organic vegetarian lunch place, but, alas, it was closed for the holiday. We headed back to the station and decided to give a random Japanese style curry place a try. Unfortunately they used the same curry sauce for all the curries, so even though we ordered the vegetable curry we ended up with some stringy meat bits in our meals. Moral of the story: never trust the Japanese curries.

That night we ate at Kathmandu, a Nepalese place. It gets my vote for the best meal we had in Osaka. We split an oh so wonderfully spicy soy bean salad (the crunchy nut kind!) and then I had an eggplant and potato curry.

We liked Katmandu so much we tried to go back for lunch the next day, but it was closed. Instead we ate at Maharaja, an Indian place in the basement of Umeda station. We've never had problems getting vegetarian food at Indian places, and the owner spoke English, so I'm not sure what went wrong but we soon found that one of the two curries they gave us had chicken in it. Sigh.

I didn't discover until our return that Osaka has a really good (well, by Japanese standards) mexican place called El Pancho. I think we've exhausted most of the activities we actually want to do in Osaka, but I think we might return just for BURRITOS.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kitchen curiosities, part 2

I have a lot to report on our extensive traveling, but I wanted to mention one of my discoveries prior to coming to Japan..

...which I guessed, correctly, would mostly feature ingredients that would be easy to find in Japan. This has certainly proved true for the Japanese-style recipes, of which I've tried several. For example, here's my take on Tonkatsu, which in its original form contains pork; instead, per the recipe, I've dredged pressed tofu in a sticky batter, coated with bread crumbs, deep fried and added a tangy tomato sauce, all over rice.

More recently (read: 3 hours ago), I tried my hand at yakisoba, which is a fried vegetable and noodle dish, also featuring a sauce mainly comprised of tomato, soy sauce, and mirin (sweet cooking wine):

(Sorry for the blurry image. My camera bites.)

At first I was hesitant to start cooking again, because going to buy groceries here and using varyingly strange and different ingredients was such a jarring and alien experience. Cooking in a lot of ways needs to be in a comfort zone for me-- I have all the ingredients I need, I know where all the various utensils are, I know what setting on the stove dial produces how much heat, etc.-- otherwise, it feels wrong, and you can likely taste it in the results. I'm happy to report that as I'm getting more comfortable in our kitchen here, the subsequent food is a lot better.

Okunoin cemetery

The main draw for us to go to Koyasan besides shojin ryori was Okunoin cemetery, Japan's largest. It's set on a beautiful hillside, surrounded by giant cedar trees.

As we tend to do, Greg and I went exploring off the beaten path. The further away you get from the crowds, the more broken and moss covered graves and statues you find.

You also find more mosquitos, spiders, and then I almost stepped on this guy:

We headed back to the main path after that. A few of the tombstones are fanciful, such as this blowfish one. Perhaps it's for someone who lost his life to Japan's deadliest dish?

Allegedly there is a marker put up by a pesticide company to show respect to all the bugs they've killed, but we never spotted it. There are also a few corporate plots. I wonder how many years you have to put in as a slave like salaryman for the Panasonic corporation before you get a spot in their plot? More pics up on flickr.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Adventures in health care

When last we spoke, I mentioned there were a few bugs in the temple we stayed at in Koyasan. (I'll eventually post more about our trip). I thought I had walked away with a few minor bites on my hands. They started to get a little itchy on Thursday. Last night, we caught a lovely sumo tournament in Hakui. By the time I returned to Dean's apartment that night, my legs were feeling a little uncomfortable. I lifted up my pants and


I thought I'd sleep it off but I awoke in the morning to find that not only was the mess on my legs bigger and redder but in fact my arms, back, neck, and chin were all similarly horrifying. I got some cream but it didn't seem to accomplish anything. Dean's neighbor, the brilliantly good at speaking Japanese Sarah (my new personal hero), happened to be on her way to a clinic so I decided to tag along.

By coming to Japan I was automatically enrolled in the national health care plan. That's right, folks: socialized medicine (dun dun dun). So after waiting in line for eight hours I was told by a death panel that I was too useless to live and promptly euthanized.

...Actually the whole thing took about a half an hour and cost me twenty bucks including the ointment and pills they gave me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Japanese temple lodging, please

Japan decided to lump a bunch of holidays I don't know anything about together so I had a five day weekend. Instead of "respecting the aged" and whatever else I was supposed to be doing for these holidays I decided to visit Koya-san, the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism located in Wakayama prefecture. It has 120 temples that offer lodging, so in making my selection I used the scientific method known as "hey, this one's ten bucks cheaper!" The primary draw of staying in a temple for Greg and me is they are pretty much the only places in the country that understand vegetarianism. When I mention that I'm a vegetarian here in Japan, the conversation usually continues as follows:

Japanese person: But you eat fish?
Me: No, no animals.
Japanese person: So octopus is ok?

Buddhist temples, however, specialize in a cuisine called Shojin Ryori, which is always vegan. By staying at a temple we were assured two carefully prepared vegan meals a day. We ended up at the Haryo-in temple. I must say, I kind of wish we had sprung the extra ten bucks to stay elsewhere. Firstly, they had two kinds of slippers out front: nice looking ones and cheap, crummy looking ones. We were quickly informed that the nice slippers are for "Japanese only." This rule was pretty firm. We saw a mixed couple and the Japanese man was allowed to wear the nice slippers while his Western girlfriend had to wear the vinyl ones. At this point I'm pretty well accustomed to the various rules about shoes (put the slippers on before going inside, take them off to go on the tatami, put them back on to walk to the bathroom, take them off and put on the toilet slippers to go in the bathroom, etc) but the monk in charge was watching me constantly, just waiting for me to slip up. And the room had bugs in it. Lots of bugs. Food was decent, though. But then I got scolded for putting my tea cup on the food tray instead of the tatami. Ugh.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Scene from a Japanese classroom

Me: Who is your favorite singer?
Student: I like pornography!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bridge to somewhere (i.e., 3 or 4 meters across)

I've been meaning to comment on this for a while. About 2 blocks down from our building (between us and the train station), there's this huge, completely inexplicable pedestrian bridge:

This is literally the only pedestrian bridge I've seen anywhere in the entire city of Kanazawa. Andrea claims to have seen one other one, but I chalk it up to heat-induced hallucinations. In some of the busier areas of town, you can find underground walkways, but no real bridges like this.

This one is no mirage, though; it exists, and it exists for no purpose other than to save you a few negligible seconds in walking 100 feet in either direction to a crosswalk. Still, I guess it's not completely useless; it takes a good two minutes for the lights to change, which doesn't seem like much, but I'm used to the wait being much shorter, especially on what seems like a moderately busy 4-lane street.Maybe you could save yourself time, if you just missed a crosswalk light and ran the whole way.

Another curiosity:

On the bridge end near our side of the street are these characters, which read "Horikawa-machi" or "Canal Town", the name of our specific neighborhood. On the opposite end, it reads "Konohana-machi", which is the name of the adjacent neighborhood; our street, as you might've guessed, is the dividing line.

It might seem strange (especially if you're familiar with San Francisco and the ridiculous arguments over neighborhood boundaries) to have such clearly delineated neighborhoods, but they serve a purpose: neighborhood names basically replace street names in Japanese city addresses, and each block and building are assigned a specific number.

This system is the other side of the coin from my earlier post about the convenience of package delivery: addresses are near-useless strings of building names and numbers that only give you a vague idea of where something generally is. If you ever come here, take our advice, which we learned the hard way: draw a map or get very specific directions about where you want to go. You'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thursdays: the best/worst day of the week

Somewhere, somehow, the rumor got started that Japanese kids are intensely studious and well behaved. I am here to tell you that this is mere myth. While the few top tier schools might have those stereotypical students, I've discovered that the rest of the schools consist of students attempting to avoid drawing any sort of attention to themselves. It turns out that in Japan a passing grade is 30%, something you can pull off just by showing up. There's not even a need to stay conscious. On Thursday I have what is by far my worst class. There're some really wild kids in it and I'm technically not allowed to discipline them so it's completely out of control. I leave exhausted and hating my job and certain I can't do this for more than a year.

But then I go to Sogo Yogo Gakko. It's the special needs high school I teach at on Thursday afternoons. The school is split into two groups: physical and mental disabilities. At first I was a little alarmed that kids who are perfectly capable mentally have to go to a separate school just because they're in a wheelchair, but the school is so wonderful that I'm pretty sure I would have preferred it over a "regular" high school. It's enormous, (it serves the entire prefecture), beautifully designed building just erected a few years ago. There are more than 150 teachers there, and they're all young, friendly, and care deeply about all of the students. The teacher to student ratio is something like 1:3. My largest class has five people and the smallest has just one student. I adore them. They actually talk to me. They want to talk to me. The first year students exceed the level of many of the third year students at my base school. It's so dramatically different from the class I have in the morning that I don't want to leave when the day is up, and I imagine I could do this job forever.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Election? What election?

All the hoopla surrounding the election really seems to have died down. Most of the formerly-ubiquitous campaign posters have been torn down, and apart from the occasional news article things seem to be back to normal, which fortunately for us means no more irritating megaphone vans. Save for a few newspaper articles, it's almost like it never happened... that is, until the DPJ actually takes power for the first time in the coming weeks. We'll see how that turns out.

Despite my own interest in the subject, I know a lot of this stuff can be pretty boring in the abstract. That's why I found this hourlong documentary that ran on PBS so fascinating: it's a rare look inside the Japanese political machine, through the campaign of a young, inexperienced candidate.

The candidate, Yamauchi, is an admitted LDP ringer from Tokyo who was sent by the party to run to fill an unexpected vacancy on Kawasaki's City Council. This is a documentary where the LDP bosses really don't come off well, in both their tactics and their attitudes toward the newcomer. Yamauchi himself comes off as a sincere and affable guy (if not especially principled), and you can tell during more candid moments how much he resents the way he and his wife are treated by the party.

There are some unique aspects to the campaign gauntlet that I found quite interesting, but some of the ridiculous events he's forced to participate in are definitely reminiscent of the more embarassing political stunts that seem so common in our own election season. And, yes, like any respectable Japanese candidate, he has his own irritating megaphone van.

Here's the official description:

This is democracy — Japanese style. Campaign provides a startling insider's view of Japanese electoral politics in this portrait of a man plucked from obscurity by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to run for a critical seat on a suburban city council. Kazuhiko "Yama-san" Yamauchi's LDP handlers are unconcerned that he has zero political experience, no charisma, no supporters and no time to prepare. What he does have is the institutional power of Japan's modern version of Tammany Hall pushing him forward. Yama-san allows his life to be turned upside down as he pursues the rituals of Japanese electioneering — with both tragic and comic results.

A little context: this was filmed in 2005, when the LDP was at the height of its modern power under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was exceedingly popular primarily for his hairstyle. No, seriously. He was a self-described reformer who made a lot of big promises and charmingly impersonated Elvis from time to time, but only really succeeding at two things: privatizing the postal service and pissing off millions of Chinese and Koreans by visiting shrines dedicated to World War II-era war criminals. Spoiler alert: you'll get to see ol' "Lionheart" himself making a half-hearted speech at a campaign rally for our guy Yamauchi!

You can watch it online right now for free: POV: Campaign. Even if you're not into politics, this is an entertaining little documentary on its own merits.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Only in Japan: Non-horrible mail service

You know how in the last post, I was talking about what I'd miss the most about Japan? Forget what I said. What I'll miss the most is their system for delivering packages.

In the States, unless you shell out a lot of extra money, you're basically at the mercy of USPS/UPS/Fedex's whims when it comes to getting a parcel in the mail. They could drop it off at 10, 12, 2, 5... who knows when, or even what day? Their general attitude seems to be that we should be grateful that they even bother to show up.

And god help you if you ever actually have to sign for the damn thing. I swear that our postman in San Francisco would intentionally wait until I left the house to "attempt" to deliver a package. That would inevitably lead one of those horrible notes that signified the need for a lengthy and unpleasant trip to the post office. And don't even get me started on the time I had to borrow a car and drive 10 miles to a far-flung industrial park in South City just to pick up a UPS package full of instant noodle lunches.

In Japan, this would rightfully be seen as an obscenely stupid way to do business. The default shipping option here will allow you to select not only the precise date of delivery, but a 2 hour time window in which the package is guaranteed to arrive. And, these time windows typically can go as late as 9 or 10 at night. Imagine that; you can actually opt to receive a package at a time you're going to be home! It's incredibly convenient and it basically renders tracking codes obsolete. Who cares if your package is in Wichita, if you know that you can set your watch by its arrival?

This system is extended to a place that is obvious but seems like a stroke of genius: airports. When we arrived at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, we had some enormous suitcases and backpacks that we opted to bring with us on the plane because shipping from the U.S. to our apartment would've been cost-prohibitive, to put it mildly. I would've had to drag these giant things with me all the way from the airport, onto two trains, and then stuff them in my small ryokan (cheap traditional-style hotel) room. Then, once the stay in Tokyo was done, I'd have to bring them on train packed with commuters to meet Andrea, and then I'd have to find room on the bus to Haneda Airport. I wasn't looking forward to it, but eventually I found that there was a better way.

I was kind of dumbfounded to discover that at Narita, there are companies who were willing to send a huge, heavy suitcase and a huge, heavy backpack 300 miles, directly to my apartment, between the hours of 8pm and 10pm on the exact day we arrived, all for a flat 16 bucks per bag. And sure enough, on the day of our arrival in Kanazawa at around 9pm, there was the delivery guy with the backpack and suitcase I'd last seen 5 days earlier on the opposite side of the country. And best of all, the one or two fragile items I'd packed were completely intact.

I have a tendency to rave enthusiastically about certain things, but I don't mean to paint a completely rosy picture of what it's like here. It's been more than 5 weeks, and I've fully come to realize many of the minor and major irritations that come with living here. I could probably rattle off half a dozen right now, most of which probably involve the summer heat/humidity and our apartment's lack of insulation from said heat/humidity. But sometimes, seemingly to make up for its more prominent faults, this country completely knocks it out of the park, and it makes you wonder why we don't do things more like them.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Kitchen curiosities

Two items, submitted for your approval:
1) Garlic. Not just any garlic, though; "Inspirational" garlic. Tasted like regular garlic to me, but maybe inspiration has a subtle flavor.

2) Morinaga Pancake Syrup. Helpfully classified as "Keki shirapu", and at the bottom, we're reassured that it's "Mepuru taipu." Ingredients are basically sugar, sugar, and sugar.
But wait, what's the deal with that cap?

If you open it up on top, it has a very fine spout. Can't get much syrup out of there quickly. But that looks like a second pull-tab underneath... it is! And you get a larger spout:

All of this on a cheap bottle of faux-maple-syrup I got at the grocery store downstairs. I think when I move away from Japan, I'll miss the banal ingenuity the most.