Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Korea Town in Shinjuku

We had been talking for quite some time about going to the Korea Town in Shinjuku. I guess there is more than one in the Tokyo area, but the Shinjuku one seems the most famous. Shinjuku means "new inn/lodging" and gets its name from early history when it was a crossroads for the first cross country roads that connected the major cities.

Joan had talked with the Takashi's, the farmers she works with, and they proposed that we all go out for a dinner. Both of their daughters were home for the holidays. The elder is a university student here in Tokyo, and the other is a high school exchange student in Canada. Neither Takashi-san nor See-chan had been there, so it was an adventure for all of us.

We met at our newly remodeled train station and headed out. It was really nice to have Japanese friends with us as they could translate both the language and culture. Everything is so much more understandable. It is also an excellent motivator for studying Japanese!

From the Shinjuku train station (one of the busiest in the world with over 3 million people passing through a day), we walked underground for quite some distance, passing through Isetan, a massive, very high-end department store. New Year's is the cultural equivalent for Christmas in Japan, so families get together for parties and gifts are exchanged. Japan is already a gift-giving country, so at New Year's, it is even crazier. It was chaos in the store - overwhelming. Boxes of beautiful arranged food are very popular. However, sometimes they look better than they taste...

We wandered over to Korea Town and stopped in a Korean grocery store, admiring all the strange foods. See-chan and I bought a small drink box of black sesame soy milk and a bag of spicy and sweet snacks. We all tried them out on the sidewalk.

After walking around for awhile, the family chose a basement restaurant and the eating began!
There were way too many dishes to describe them all. Let's just say they were delicious and spicy! See-chan does not do well with spicy food, so she was dying throughout the whole meal.

After dinner, we walked back toward Shinjuku station, passing through Kabukicho, a famous "red light" district in Japan. It is a swirl of neon signs and people, full of thousands of restaurants, strip shows, hostess bars, massage parlors, and love hotels - quite a sight to see.
We finished off by swinging through "Shomben Yokocho," quaintly translated as "Piss Alley," a
narrow warren of alleys with tiny izakayas (drinking restaurants) serving table top grilled meats. The Takashi daughters were not done yet with eating, so we stopped for some grilled chicken
skin, meatballs, pork, and green peppers stuffed with hamburger. We finally dragged ourselves to the station and onto the train.

It was a whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes! When you come for a visit, we'll take you there!

If you want to see a short youtube video, try this link:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Daikon harvest!

Joan has been trying to get to the farm the last few weeks to help our farmer friends with harvesting daikon - a Japanese radish. Every weekday morning, they pull up, clean and prepare about 60 daikon for the local supermarket. Since the weekends are big shopping days, the store wants more, so we got the chance to help with the harvest this Sunday morning.

I took a lot of video and put together this little youtube video:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The morning after

After a heavy, somewhat American style Thanksgiving dinner on Friday night, we decided to follow through on an earlier plan and try a "traditional" Japanese breakfast at one of our favorite fast food restaurants, Sukiya.

This restaurant was one of the first we tried when we arrived. They are a chain that specializes in gyudon, a bowl of rice with meat served on top. There are many different varieties and flavors. We had seen their breakfast menu and always meant to try it. What perfect timing!

After a few cups of coffee, we shuffled down the street toward the train station. Sukiya is only about two blocks away and open 24 hours a day.

After we sat down, the waiter brought us our glasses of mugi cha (barley tea) and headed back to the kitchen. After we discussed the menu options, we pushed the buzzer, and the waiter came scurrying back. We ordered a basic set for 400 yen (about $4).

A few minutes later, he brought out our trays, and we got to work!

First was the miso soup: lovely, warm, salty broth with seaweed floating in it. Then a piece of
grilled fish (salmon) with a bowl of white rice - all spiced up with a small bowl of pickled vegetables and some pickled ginger from the condiment rack. And don't forget the package of salty, savory dried seaweed strips!

Oh, heavenly! We shall return...

Sweet Potato Harvest

The farmers that Joan helps, Takashi-san and Shee-chan, and their family have been farming in the area for many, many years. Most of the land of Musashisakai used to belong to the family, and many branches of the family are still hear and own many things. Some Takashis own and operate the local sento (bath house) we go to. In fact, our landlord is a Takashi.

One of the long time traditions started by Shee-chan's father is having a group of local school kids and their parents come and harvest sweet potatoes. We helped prepare the field the week before
and went back to watch the event.

I took a bunch of video clips and stitched them together into this youtube video. Enjoy!

First Thanksgiving in Japan

As we have one of the family apartments in our building and the most clear space, we offered to host a Thanksgiving dinner at our apartment last Friday. We invited the other teachers at CELE (Center for English Language Education), the Japanese staff at KKC (the International Student Affairs office that we work closely with), and handful of non-school friends, both foreign and local.

On Friday, we spent the afternoon cleaning and cooking, getting ready for about 20 guests. It was going to be a pot luck - a vegetarian affair as no one had an oven large enough to cook a turkey. Plus, the cost of a turkey was quite prohibitive. Japan does not celebrate Thanksgiving; they do celebrate many of the same holidays as us but in slightly different ways. Kentucky Fried Chicken is HUGE at Christmas time here...

People started showing up around 7 PM and straggled in as the night went on. The table began to fill with food: salads, jambalaya, green beans and persimmons, squash, Spanish omelet, rolls,
brown rice, couscous salad, brownies, and of course, pumpkin pie.

Food was eaten, and the wine, beer, sake, and hot mulled wine began to flow. It got quite warm and loud in the apartment, and fun was had by all. We had arranged some spillover seating in our bedroom on the tatami mats. It provided a quieter spot for conversation and hanging out.

Someone brought an electronic word game, similar to Taboo but passed from hand to hand. The main living room began a big circular game of boys versus girls, with great shrieking and

After five hours and towards the end of the evening, I was standing on the front porch, saying goodbye to some of our guests, when I noticed our downstairs neighbor come home. I glanced at the time and realized it was midnight! Quiet hours start at 10 pm...

I quickly went inside and called a time out on the current round of the word game and suggested that we needed to keep it down as it was so late. Inadvertently, this created a tipping point, and the party promptly came to an end as people realized how late it was and how loud we had been.

With many thanks and about 20 minutes of farewells, everyone drifted or staggered off home. We soon collapsed onto our futons and promptly fell asleep.

We have celebrated many other holidays abroad, and usually they are not very memorable: perhaps a special dish or a gathering with another Peace Corps Volunteer on a school night. This Thanksgiving was very nice. We still missed all our family and friends back home, but this evening of delicious food, many friends, and a great deal of laughter made it much easier.

To see a short video of the set up, click on the link below:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's always shocking to be called back to reality...

We have been here for over six months now. We are starting to feel comfortable and somewhat at home. It is still very interesting and exotic to be here, but a lot of the “gee whiz” has faded. Sometimes when we are walking down the street, we feel that we had adapted to Japan and no longer feel like such a foreigner in a foreign land. “We’re hip,” we tell ourselves, “We live here. We ain’t no dorky tourists…” We might even feel that we are starting to blend in…

Then we see another foreigner, usually a westerner like us. And it is startling, almost shocking, too see that person. They stand out so much among the Japanese, especially if they are dressed in the westerner tourist outfit, as compared to the usually well dressed locals.

Then, with a sinking feeling, we realize that’s us. That’s how we look. There’s no blending in.

The Japanese are very polite. You will rarely see them checking you out. You might catch a pair of eyes glancing away if you turn that way. The illusion that you are just cruising along, blending in as a “foreign local” is just that – an illusion.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Trying to be a better blogger...

Mom berated me yesterday to write more on our blogs. We had started out strong, but we both have faded. I have been focusing more and more time on seriously studying Japanese, and Joan has been learning how to be a teaching at our university. Also, this summer was incredibly busy with traveling, hosting many guests and escorting them around. It has been too easy to just say, “Oh, I’ll write about it later…” The problem is that something just as interesting happens, and writing about the earlier thing gets pushed further down the list.

Also, Facebook comes into to play. It is easy to post a quick status update, comment or upload a photo in the immediacy of the moment and leave it at that. The problem is that not everyone is on Facebook, nor does it lend itself to longer and more thoughtful commentary (most of the time).

Today was a good example. We had the big excitement of Typhoon Melor coming to visit. I wrote a few comments on Facebook about what was going on, but that might have been all I wrote…

So, back in the saddle!

Asia is regularly hammered by the powerful storms; the Philippines just got hit by two back to back and are experiencing horrible flooding. Japan gets them, too, but it has been two years since one actually has made landfall. We had bad typhoon related weather earlier this summer which caused some damage from flooding and landslides in the south, and a small number of people were killed. Today was supposed to be a big one.

Yesterday, many of the students said they were going to stay home. Our farmer friends were worried about their crops. The streets were strangely quiet and empty last night; many shops and restaurants were shuttered. It had been raining steadily but not too heavily for the last day or so, but in the night, the intensity picked up. We could hear it drumming on the roof above it, yet the wind did not seem too bad. By the morning, the intensity of the rain had slackened, but it was still coming down. It did not look too bad outside, and the sky was lightening.

However, we soon received a text message from our boss saying that morning classes were canceled. Hurrah! Typhoon day! (It doesn’t have the same effect as “Snow day!” does it?)

So I stayed home to continue studying kanji, and eventually Joan headed into to school to do some preparation for classes. We have a friend from Michigan visiting us for a week, and later that morning, we headed down to the station to send her on her way for some sightseeing.

As we stood outside the station, and I explained to her the train system and what she would need to do, we suddenly r that the train full of commuters we could see at the platform had not moved in well over five minutes. Usually, the morning trains are fast, furious, and frequent. What’s going on?

With a sinking feeling, we headed up the stairs into the station and saw something I have never seen before. Chaos! A broken down system! There was a milling crowd at the turnstiles, not being let through by the station staff. A uniformed man on a megaphone was talking to the crowd, which swelled and ebbed as more and more people came up the stairs and then left when they realized the world famously punctual trains were not running… There were some staff handing out slips of white paper, which commuters took in hand and left: a “the trains were shut down” note to give to the boss? Another staffer had a map booklet in hand and was offering alternative routes.

I went up the ticket window by the turnstile gates to check that no trains were running. He confirmed it and said he did not know when they would be running again. Behind him was the computer monitor that normally shows the train system with all the routes in their colors: orange, blue, green, etc. Today they were all outlined in angry, pulsing red. Well, well…

Back at the apartment, I checked in with Joan by email and found out that the afternoon classes had been canceled, as well, because the Chuo train line, the main one that students use to come to school, had been shut down due to flooding and high winds.

I read later on the Internets that about 9,000 people had to be evacuated due to flooding, some roofs were torn off and that one bridge had been washed away. The only fatality I have heard of was a newspaper delivery guy on his motorcycle was killed by a falling tree.

The weird thing was that by mid-morning, it was very warm and sunny, although windy. You wouldn’t know there had been a typhoon except for all the leaves and branches in the street, as well as the rows and rows of bicycles that had been blown over.

So, this afternoon, we rode bikes over to Kichijoji to show our friend some local sights. Also, I had to drop my badminton racquet off at Racquet Shop Fuji. I snapped the strings last night at practice. It cost 2,205 yen to get it restrung (about $24). On the way back, we stopped by the tallest building in Musashinosakai to go up to the 11th floor and look to the west. On a clear day after the rains, if the visibility is good enough… Yep, we were able to see Mt. Fuji outlined by the sunset. All in all, a pretty good day.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hokkaido Trip 2009 (part two)

The Hamanasu night express train from Aomori to Sapporo, while an efficient way to save some time on our trip, was definitely not the most comfortable. I truly considered getting out one of our new ThermaRest sleeping pads and finding a space to stretch out in the aisle with all the other unlucky (lucky, perhaps?) souls.

We rolled into Sapporo with most of day to spend because Ryan would not be free till later in the day. So, groggy and grimy, we found a "manga kissa" - (comic book cafe). These are places where, for about 300-400 yen an hour, you can read all the comic books (manga) you want, as well as surf the Internet, sleep/relax in comfy arms chairs/sofas, take a shower, and drink all the free drinks (soda, coffee, juices). Pretty sweet deal if you are traveling and need a break.

So, for about $2.50, we both got a shower and loaded up on coffee and juice to start the day. Sapporo reminded us a great deal of Kazakhstan cities with the layout and wide, open avenues and green spaces. We did a quick tour of the fish market and declined to have sushi and raw sea urchin for breakfast. A botanical garden tour was followed by a failed attempt to walk to a shrine/park area that was too far away. With time to spare and a day of unlimited local train rides, we headed back out of town to Otaru, a seaside town, to see the sights. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to do it right and ended up just eating black squid ink and wasabi flavored ice cream - actually pretty tasty!

Another pretty long train ride, we got to Asahikawa and were picked up by Ryan and friend who had a car. We whisked over to a really nice onsen (hot springs bath) for a cleansing soak, followed by an all you can eat salad bar restaurant, a nice change from three days of travel food.
We gratefully fell asleep at Ryan's apartment, glad to be not traveling for awhile.

The next day was full of helping Ryan's friend, Toby, build his rice straw bale house. The weekend had been a workshop for those wanting to learn how to build with straw bales. Quite a project! The carefully crafted wooden internal structure was finished, so we measured, cut and stacked hay bales all day with people from all over Hokkaido and Japan. Joan will blog about it later in great detail...

That night, we did some hurried food planning, shopping and pacing for our seven camping trip, following Ryan's advice on what to bring: mostly soba and ramen noodles with lots of dehydrated tofu and shitake mushrooms.

In the morning, we were picked up by anther friend of Ryan's, Mark, who had access to an SUV, which cut out a lot of travel time spent on train, bus and hiking/hitch hiking to the trail head. Once there, Ryan and Yuka stashed an extra week's worth of food for their second week in a hut shelter, and then the five of us shouldered our packs and started heading up the trail.

Wow, it was tough. We had done some conditioning and hiking in Tokyo, but it is no replacement for a rough, steep trail and a fully loaded pack. Luckily, the first days was only three hours up to the lake where we set up base camp for days hikes. Obviously, one of the best things about the park is the visual beauty, so I will let the photos and videos do most of the talking (park photos start about half way):

The second day was a long day hike to determine the condition of a trail and the location of a water source on the trail. One idea was to hike this long trail to another mountain series and do some exploring on the second half of the trip. Well, the trail was almost completely overgrown by "sasa" - a type of bamboo grass - and pretty much shredded us and our clothes. We also did not find any water. Scratch that plan.

On the third day, Mark headed back to civilization and work, while we did a long hike down the other side of the plateau we were camping to an onsen and mountain hut. Ryan had not been there yet, and the idea of a hot bath and sleeping in a hut sounded pretty good to us. It started out fine, but we got to really steep stuff, it started to rain. Then the trail started following a stream. The the trail became the stream, full of slippery rocks and flowing water. It, quite frankly, became rather miserable and unpleasant. Joan took a fall crossing the water and ended up on her back in the stream. She had been less than happy in general, and this was a bit too much. We took a break, and Joan took a little alone time to sort herself out.

However, we finally made it down to the onsen and hut. A good, long, hot soak in the onsen and a dry change of clothes in the warm and snug mountain hut did wonders for everyone's outlook. We had planned for staying over and so had our sleeping bags, pads, stove, and food. It was a good thing because there was no way Joan (or the rest of us, except maybe for Ryan) was going to hike back up that watery trail in the rain and gathering dusk.

We slept really well and awoke to a sunny day four. More soaking, some quick laundry (clean socks, anyone?) and relaxing in the sun got us ready to hike back up the trail. It was much nicer and more enjoyable, especially now that we could see the spectacular views of all the mountains around us. We made it back to the lake campsite and were glad to see our tents full of food undisturbed by the fox we had seen the second day and by the bears we had imagined would be ravaging our tents while we were gone.

Ryan and Yuka decided to keep on hiking and head back down to the trail head and the hut to get their extra food. With a change in the original plan of where we were heading, they decided it was better to lug all the extra food (with our help) with them so they would be able to go where they wanted for their second week in the park. They took their sleeping gear and the only stove to stay in the hut and took off. We ate our dinner that we had quickly cooked and took a walk around the lake, seeing another fox. Luckily, some other hikers had showed up earlier that day and set up camp, so we did not feel all alone. However, it was a cold, windy, and rainy evening, so we were in the tent before seven and soon asleep. In fact, we all quickly adopted the pattern of going to be before 8 pm and getting up around 4 or 5 am. Nothing much else to do when it gets dark...


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hokkaido Trip 2009 (part one)

The idea of our trip to Hokkaido started when we met our second couchsurfing guest, Ryan. He had come to Tokyo to find work as a photographer and check out the Tokyo scene. He had been bouncing between Hokkaido and Thailand for a couple of years, hiking and photographing Daisetzuan national park and building an adobe house in the north of Thailand. His apartment had not been ready when he arrived in Tokyo and needed an emergency place to stay. As the apartment situation dragged on, he ended up staying with us for about 10 days. He finally decided that maybe the big city was not meant to be for him and decided to return to Hokkaido.

Luckily, while he stayed with us, his knowledge of the country and Japanese language skills helped open doors for us. He went with us to restaurants and stores and often explain what was going on behind the scenes. He also was pivotal in finding Joan a farm to work on, something she is very thankful for.

When he left, he suggested that we come up to Hokkaido and visit him. He offered to guide us around the park and a base of operation to explore the island. He also mentioned that the heat and humidity would be horrendous in August and that in Hokkaido it would be much cooler and drier. So all spring long, we had been talking and planning about a big trip up there. My job provides a ridiculous amount of summer vacation, so we had the time to do it right.

As we had not brought any hiking or camping gear, we started looking around at what was offered in Japan. They are crazy here about hiking and camping, but the prices are really expensive, especially for shoes and boots. So we ended up having a lot of our old gear sent from the States, as well as some hefty purchases from REI.

Joan had about three weeks of vacation from her part-time teaching job, so that was our window of opportunity. The problem was that is was the same window for everyone else in Japan. It was summer vacation in general and “obon” – the time when everyone goes home to visit family and to pray at the graves of ancestors. This meant that travel options were extremely expensive or completely booked. We did lots of research and hemming and hawing and eventually realized that there was no cheap and easy way to do it. So we decided to take the cheap option (I prefer to think of it as the “frugal” option, thank you very much, peanut gallery).

Three times a year, one can buy “Seishun juhachi kippu” (18 year old tickets). For about 11,500 yen (~$115), it gets you five individual days of unlimited travel on local trains, an extremely slow but extremely cheap way to travel. We had been discussing these tickets as a way to see Japan (bullets trains are so fast that you don’t get a chance to see Japan as it whips by at about 140 mph), so as we had lots of time, we decided to try it. We ended up buying a slightly different version, a rail pass, that offered similar travel but with slightly better options for our trip.

It was going be almost 1,400 kilometers on local trains, so we decided to break it up into three days and see some of Japan. We found a couchsurfing (CS) host in Tendo about halfway up the main island, Honshu, for the first night. The second night was going to find us in Aomori on the northern most point where we would get on the Hamanasu night express train at 11 pm. We would sleep as the train went through the undersea tunnel to Hokkaido island, arriving in Sapporo around 6 am. The third day would be a little sightseeing in Sapporo and then continuing north to Asahikawa where Ryan lives.

So after a great deal of shopping (who knew the 100 yen store would have so many things one needs for a backpacking trip?), organizing, planning, and packing, we left early Friday morning, train schedule in hand. Well, to use the juhachi kippu tickets, we had to make many train transfers to string together all the local trains. Some of this transfer times were measured in less than 10 minute intervals… Well, at our first transfer, we got confused about what platform we were supposed to be on and, yep, you guessed it: we missed our first connecting train. Unfortunately, it completely screwed up our carefully figured out itinerary and resulted in two and a half hours extra travel time. “Shoganai?” (“what can you do?” in Japanese).

Our CS host, Yohei, had suggested we stop by Yamadera, an ancient and beautiful Buddhist temple complex built into a mountain side. Even though we were running way behind, we decided to still visit. The weather was horrible, but it was still beautiful and even more impressive in the rain and mist. We will definitely put it on the list of places to return to.

We arrived in Tendo around 7 pm and were met at the station by Yohei. He had studied in America for six years and was excited to use his English again. He and his parents lived in a nice apartment in a building that reminded us of the big box apartment buildings of Kazakhstan. They had prepared a fantastic meal for us, and we all had a wonderful time telling stories and learning about each other. Joan, of course, will be blogging about the food and recipes she got from Yohei’s mother.

We slept soundly on futons on the floor in the same room with Yohei and woke to another wonderful Japanese meal: a breakfast of rice, pickled vegetables and leftover tofu. With many thanks, we walked to the station and got on another local train and headed east to Sendai where we would turn north again.

It was another loooooong day on the train, but the views were always interesting. In the three days of traveling, we never cracked a book or took a nap; there was too much to see out the windows. Finally arriving in Aomori, we met up with a fellow Asia University teacher, Derek, and his friend for dinner before catching the night express train. They were also traveling around Japan and just happened to be in the same town.
One of the risks with traveling juhachi kippu is that you can’t make any reservations. The Hamanasu night express train only goes once a day, and it is the major (and only) way people traveling on a budget get to Hokkaido. Only two cars on the train on non-reservation, and the guidebook implied it might be a good idea to get in line early. How early? Well, we asked the train station staff how early they thought we should go stand in line. They said, “One hour? That should be fine… but you never know…” So we decided to be extra safe and show up two hours early; again, we had lots of time on our hands.

It’s a good thing we did. As we walked down the stairs to the train platform, we could not see the end of the platform where the line would form. We came around the food kiosk that was blocking our view, and… oh my… There were already many, many people waiting, sitting on the ground with their backpacks and bags. We picked up the pace and even passed some people walking down the long platform. Some quick questions in our poor Japanese determined we were in the right place, so we quickly took our place in line. We struck up a conversation with our line neighbor (we always seem to luck into strangers who speak English) and learned it was his third trip to hike in Daisetzuan park. We also learned that the night we were there, Sunday, August 9th, was the busiest travel day of the year, and the train would be packed! We nervously asked him if we were close enough in line to get a seat because we didn’t want to have to stand for seven hours – nightmare memories of Kazakhstan came flooding in! He thought that we had a good chance, but just to be sure, that when people started boarding, to move quickly and not hesitate about getting any seats.

During the two hours we sat there, a steady stream of people came walking down the platform. It was funny and horrible to watch their expressions as they realized the situation and hurried to get in the lines which grew longer and longer. When the train finally pulled up to the platform, everyone jumped to their feet, shouldered their packs, and pressed forward. The doors opened, and people surged into the train, closely watching the people filling the seats coming from the other direction, hoping to get to open seats. We made it to a pair of seats with not much time to spare and gratefully sank into the…extremely hard and uncomfortable seats!! Argh!! It turned out that the poor SOBs that had to sleep on the floor of the aisle probably had a more comfortable ride and more sleep than we did…

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Baileys now on YouTube!

Lord help us, we just can't get away from Rich and Joan. Now we have to watch and listen to them now... Won't they ever stop pestering us?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Panda party!

Last weekend, we decided to go out for dinner after a day of swimming and gardening. Our plan was to go to a ramen cart that we had seen the other day, set up on the south side of the station. It looked like it had the potential to be a diamond in the rough.

Well, it was not there when we biked over Must have packed it up and rolled away. So, I mentioned a little izakaya (Japanese traditional bar) that I had seen on the way, and off we went.

It was, perhaps, one of the best nights we have had here in Japan.

It is extremely small -maybe three tables that sit four each and a long bar that serves about 10. The bar was interesting in that you sat with your feet in a concrete trench under the bar and with your tuckus on the lip of the trench.

It was also hot and noisy. However, that was made up for by the incredibly friendly staff, cold beer and tasty food. Any visitors will be taken there!

At an izakaya, you will drink. And you will eat. You are served food whether you order it or not, and since you will pay for it, why not eat it?

So, with not much time to get our bearings, the main guy behind the bar, Reiji, started putting
food in front of us. First was a small dish with a cube of "nikogori" - a type of meat-based gelatin with random vegetables ("meat jello with veggies" we called it) - and a fried "wakasagi" (a small fish eaten whole). It came with two sauces: a miso-based salty paste and a creamy sesame flavored dressing.

Next was a battered and fried meatball with chunks of carrot, onions, and peas inside. It had a pleasant curry flavor and came with sliced cabbage on the side.

Last was something we saw another patron eat, and we just had to try it. Turns out it is a ball of pork (a little like Spam but better) wrapped around a quail egg. Then it is rolled in cooked rice
that had been soaked in something savory (miso, soy sauce?). Finally, it is steamed until cooked all the through. They served it with a sauce of spicy red bean paste in sesame oil - heavenly!

Kris, my boss, gardens with Joan and had come with us. She found herself adopted by the tipsy Okinawan woman at her end of the bar. She got the full cultural immersion, including an Okinawan cream cheese with mango sauce and flat bread to spread it on. Derek, a fellow teacher,
who does not eat fish and strange food, watched bemusedly.

A couple mugs of cold beer washed it all down, and at the end of fantastic night of jumping with both feet into Japanese cultural, we tipsily rode our bikes home. We'll be back!

Monday, July 20, 2009

A map of our town

Here is another map that shows our little city, Musashino-shi, in Tokyo. If you have any questions about the location of other things we have mentioned, please feel free to ask...

Nice bike ride in Tokyo

Last weekend, I went on a bike ride with a friend, Josie, out on a bike path we had seen a little bit of a month or so ago. I had looked at it on google maps and saw that it went out a good ways and ended at a reservoir that had the potential for swimming and more biking.

Well, there was no swimming - not suprising in a city of so many people; I guess they want to keep their drinking water clean!

However, it was a really nice ride, and something I'd like to take Joan on.

I have been experimenting with Google Maps and learning how to make my own maps. The link below is one of my first attempts...

Click on this link to see a map of the ride!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Yeosu, Korea - Day 3

The third day dawn hot and overcast - the perfect conditions to hike up the nearby "mountain" and enjoy the view! So with water and snacks, we started trudging up and up and up... The hike itself was nothing exciting, but the view was rather spectacular, even if somewhat hazy.

Grace had brought up kimbap: rice and strips of vegetables and meat rolled up in sheets of seaweed and then sliced into disks. We sat in a rather modern looking picnic shelter at the top and looked out over the ocean and back into the foothills. We could have spent much longer up there,
but the plan for the afternoon was to head to the beach.

So, we trudged back down to Grace's apartment to change and reload.
Then Grace ferried us one by one over to the open air market near Jack's apartment to buy some of the famous local kimchee for our Busan couchsurfing host and a watermelon for eating on the beach.

A fairly long taxi ride got us out to a very empty but beautiful beach. It is another one of Grace's favorite places where she hangs out most of the summer. We had a grand time swimming in the cold water; I always forget how salty the sea is! Joan wandered up and down the tide line, collecting shells and sea glass. Jack finished up his afternoon classes and
joined us later in the day.

After awhile, Joan and I decided to hike over to the sea wall across the and around a peninsula. There is only so much sitting on the beach a man can do... Part of the sea wall was made of a jumbled mass of giant concrete "jacks." Watching them put them in place would have been interesting to see. We wandered the tide pools, chasing crabs and poking random sea life.

Finally, as the sun was going down, we headed back to town for showers and beers before going out for more food - what a surprise! Grace and Jack wanted to take us to one of their favorite
places which they called "Bamboo" - the walls were all made of it. We had "pajeon," a type of savoury pancake/omelet with the usual cast of side dishes.

We also had a traditional Korean drink called "makegeolli," a chunky, fermented rice wine that is served very cold, almost frozen. It was...interesting. Let's just leave it at that, shall we?

So, after that filling meal, what was next on the agenda? You guessed it - more eating! Another Korean event is going to a 'sojhu tent,' usually set up on a
empty patch of ground. Inside, they serve all types of grilled "drinking" food and lots and lots of soju (famous Korean liquor), as well as anything else you might want.

We pushed through the flaps into the tent, startling the proprietors and one table of customers, but they quickly welcomed us. We sat in the white plastic patio chairs that are every all over the world now. The table was a round piece of wood bolted to a 55 gallon drum. Grilled pork was ordered, and it came with the biggest blob of kimchee we have ever seen.
We had a grand time interacting with the other people in the tent, not speaking each others' languages but having no problems communicating. Things got more interesting when they ordered the octopus fresh out of the tank. It wriggled vigorously throughout the whole process, even when chopped and served on a plate.

They offered me to join them for a sample, and since I was possessed by the extreme optimism that often comes with drinking too much, I eagerly said yes. I should have said no. It was still wiggling. And it tasted nasty. It tasted very nasty. The shot of luke warm soju did not help. I don't know if you can see it during the video that Grace took and posted, but I had a hard time keeping it down. It was a great way to end the night; although, I was a hurting unit the next

Friday, July 3, 2009

More food adventures in Musashino Sakai

Today is a beastly hot day; the temperature is in the 80's and so is the humidty. The sun feels like a heavy blanket that is not welcome.

I met with a Japanese woman, Makiki, who just moved to the area to work in a retirement home and wants to improve her English. She put a flyer up near our office offering to do a language exchange. As I really wanted a Japanese speaker to help me with my studies, I emailed her, and we agreed to meet. It turns out that due to declining birth rates, there will not be enough workers in the future, and one area of great need will be elder care. The government is planning on importing many care givers from South Easty Asia (Philipines, etc.), and English will be the common language between them. So, Makiko believes that bettering her English will put her in a good position for the future, especially in a management position.

So, while I was practicing my Japanese in the airconditioning at the university, Joan was slaving away in the full sun at the farm. She had been telling Takashi-san and See-chan about our trip to Korea, especially the food. They really enjoyed the story of the still wriggling octopus that I was
lucky enough to eat. She also told them about our regular Friday night sushi take out night. The photo on the right shows what we had last night.

They asked her what her favorite sushi was, and she responded, "Salmon and eel." After some discussion, it was determined that Joan likes the sushi made of BBQ "unagi" or river eel, as compared to "anago" or sea eel. After awhile, Takashi-san paused, made a serious face, and said, "Joan-san, I recommendo (the name of a restaurant). They serve unagi."

Luckily, I just then stopped by on the way home from the university, and it was decided we would go for lunch at this restaurant. This was pefect because it turned out to be one of those mysterious restaurants with the half curtain hanging in the doorway and indecipherable writing on the signs that we had been eyeballing for some months in the neighborhood. In fact, it was immediately opposite the sento (public bath) we had discovered. There are so many we have not explored yet; it is really nice to go with someone who can lead the way.

We ducked past the curtain, the aquarium, and the bucket with the turtle despearately scrabbling away at the sides ("Don't think about it; don't think about it; Don't think about it," I thought to myself."). After we sat at the table, See-chan order four lunch sets of the BBQ unagi, and we hungrily waited while the small space filled with the smell of grilled eel.
As you can see from the photo, the meal was brought in covered dishes. A small dish of pickled cucumber, carrot, and daikon partnered with another of juicy, peeled tomatoes.

Removing the lids revealed a rectangular piece of grilled BBQ eel resting on rice and the ubiquitious miso soup, full of green onion and small shellfish sprung open by the heat. It was all
very tasty and yet another example of the great cooking in Japan, especially the smaller portions and the healthier ingredients. And, all that for only 680 yen!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Yeosu, Korea - Day 2

A whirlwind of day! We slept in a little bit, but it still was not enough for Grace, and we had to
wake her up by cell phone since we did not have a cardboard tube...

We started with a walking tour of Grace's neighborhood; her street has a bunch of restaurants and bars. We were fascinated by all the tanks of fish and octopus lining the edge of the pavement. Our favorite restaurant name was "Hello Duck!"

We headed down the fairly steep hill to the water's edge to take a look at the bay and all the boats. From there, we headed along the edge of the basin toward a historically significant site on the other side where the famous Turtle Ships were built (more on that later). Along the way, we stopped to examine and poke all the jellyfish floating just at the surface. The coastal exploration continued past the historical site and into undeveloped nature.

As lunch time approached, some friends of Grace's called and wanted to join us, so we headed up
a dirt path to cut through some smaller farms and get back to civilization. Our meeting spot was one of Grace's favorites which specialized in tofu. As you can tell from looking at the photo album, the focus of the trip was food. We tried to take photos of every meal before it was demolished.

All the food was great in Korea! It was interesting, spicy, tasty, and even more. I won't bore you with glowing descriptions; there were just too many. I will put captions with the photos that will help highlight our eating delights. The main thing about Korean eating is that with every dish you order - small or large- you also get a large number of side dishes of kimchii, other pickled vegetables, and numerous other random treats. It is hard to not eat too much, and it keeps on
coming. Eating in Japan is not like that, and I think we would not have lost as much weight if we had moved to Korea.

As Joan had asked Grace about organic farming and vegetables, we decided to take a taxi to the open air market in town and see what was for sale. It reminded us of shopping in Thailand and Kazakhstan: a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and smells - especially the smells in the fish section! It was probably good that we had already eaten because we would have bought way too much of all the interesting looking foods.

Grace's first school was just across the road and up the hill, so we walked over and got a tour.
The building and the grounds reminded me a great deal of Kazkakstan, as well as Olivia, the teacher who had been Grace's "Korean mother." She was almost exactly like the friendly, helpful teachers at Joan's school in Kyzylorda.

One funny side note: there were many students running around, probably 11 or so. They were really energetic and noisy. They were also not shy like the Japanese students we have met. In fact, there they were so not shy that when they walked past me, they all reached out and stroked my forearm, commenting in Korean on how I was hairy like a bear or a monkey.

Then it was back to the market for more window shopping. We met up with Jack who had finished classes and sauntered about, ducking into stores and browsing the aisles. We bought a mix cd of Korean dance music that has proven to be a good souvenir.

On the other side of the shopping area was Jinnamkwan, the largest single story wooden
structure in Korean - LSSWK as we called. The current version was built in the 1700s but is originally much older. Wars and accidental fires have destroyed it many times.

Grace then suggested we take a taxi to visit a replica of a famous Korean "Turtle Ship." This was an early form of armored wooden fighting ship that had proved very effective against the
Japanese in ancient times. It is quite an impressive sight with metal spikes everywhere and even a dragon figure head that would have had a smoke and belched clouds of noxious smoke.
From there, we walked up and over a big hill to one of Grace's favorite hangouts, a cafe overlooking Yesosu. Our feet were very tired from sightseeing, so it was a welcome relief to sit in the shade and gaze over the city and have a cold drink. We sat there for about two hours and just talked about life in general. It was really nice to spend some time with Jack and get to know him better. He is a really nice guy, and we told Grace he was a keeper, even if he did dress like a baggy, French mime the whole visit...

Then it was time for more food - a major theme of the trip. We taxied to The Chicken Palace for a feast of BBQ chicken cooked at our table with veggies with the inevitable array of side dishes.
Footsore, tired and full, we staggered home, took showers and went to bed early. The next day's plan was a morning hike up a mountain and an afternoon at the beach.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A bad start to a good trip...

We know how important it is to have people visit and see your world. They can better relate to your stories and your experiences that are significant to you. With that in mind, we really wanted to visit Grace Bialecki, one of my cousins on my father's side, who has been living and teaching English in Yeosu, South Korean for the last two years. However, her visa is going to expire in July – before my summer vacation when we would have time to really explore Grace's world and more of Korea. We had tried to put a short trip together during my Golden Week holiday, but as most of Japan travels that week, airfare was astronomical, so the idea was shelved. Finally, we said, “What the heck...” and arranged a long weekend trip.

We flew out Wednesday evening, and it almost ended in disaster right there at the immigration desk.

Nobody had told us nor had we read about the re-entry permit that needs to be applied for and purchased to get back into the country...

We had walked up to the immigration desk and the officer began thumbing through our passports. He said, “You don't have re-entry permits. You can leave, but we will have to confiscate your alien registration card here. You will have to get a re-entry permit and apply for a new alien registration card.” What!?

To make all this worse, there had been a train problem getting to the airport, and we were late – very late for our flight...

After some initial confusion, we were taken aside to the immigration office, and the situation was explained to us. Our options were to apply right then and there for a re-entry permit and be able to keep the alien card or go through the whole alien card application process, which is lengthy and complicated – not something we wanted to do.

I looked at the clock and said, “Our flight leaves in less than 45 minutes. Can you do this in time for our flight?” They assured us they could, so we started frantically filling out paperwork and paying the $30 each fee. Our paperwork was taken to a desk, and we sat there dying a little death each time the hand clicked on the clock. As it took longer and longer, we both started to get more and more nervous. I felt sick to my stomach.

Then over the PA system, we heard, “This is the final boarding call for Northwest flight 85. Please come to the gate immediately.”

We both jumped to our feet and started diplomatically pleading with them to hurry. The announcement was made again. “Come on,” we both almost shouted.

Finally, they handed us our passports and told us we could go. We burst through the door and took off at a dead run through the airport. It felt like a horror movie or a bad dream. As we sprinted the quarter mile or so, we had to dodge crowds of people, politely but firmly yelling at people to get out of our way. Not one of our finer culturally sensitive minutes...

We barely made it in time and handed our boarding passes to the staff. We stood there gasping and steaming with anger and stress. It was truly a horrible experience: at least a top 10 we agreed.

Luckily, from there is was smooth sailing all the way to Grace. The flight and the 8:30 pm landing in Busan were smooth. There were no hassles with health inspections or customs; everyone is very uptight in Asia about swine flu. We walked out of the Ginmae airport door and right on to the 307 Red bus that was waiting for us (1,500 won – 1 US dollar is 1,300 won). We transferred to the subway at Dongnae station for a quick ride to Nopodong bus terminal (1,100 won). There we bought tickets for the 10:40 long distance bus to Yeosu for 21,000 won. We had just enough time to use the restroom and buy a bottle of water and snacks before we drove off into the night.

The horrible Korean drama/soap opera on the bus's TV made the trip seem longer than it really was, but some cat naps made it seem short, as well.

Around one o'clock in the morning, we arrived in Yeo-chun, part of Yeosu and got off the bus. A quick call on a pay phone rousted Grace, who had been waiting nearby at Jack's (her boyfriend) apartment. As Jack had to teach in the morning, we parted ways and hopped in a taxi to Grace's apartment.

Still somewhat jazzed up from the trip and seeing each other in a foreign land, we stayed up till three o'clock, talking and catching up on each other's lives. As Grace only had one bed at her place, she left it to us and hopped on her scooter to buzz back to Jack's.

We exhaustedly fell in to bed and fell asleep, with visions of eating kimchii the next day dancing in our heads...

Photos at this link: http://picasaweb.google.com/richbailey911/KoreaJune2009#

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A mini reunion!

When we went on that thatch roof project, we got to know one of the other volunteers, Saori, a nursing student here in Tokyo. We had a really good time practicing each other's languages, spreading manure on the rice fields, and eating lots of good food.

It turns out her nursing school is just a few stops past ours on the Chuo line, so have met her twice now after school down at the Starbucks by the train station. She is helping us with our Japanese, and she is fun to be with. The second time, this past Wednesday, we decided to get some dinner and decided to try the ramen shop that Joan's farmer friends had recommended.

It was good ramen but not killer ramen. We have asked her to join us for other meals; that way she can be our translator and guide to the mysterious restaurants in our neighborhood! We'll keep you posted on our eating adventures...

A busy weekend in Japan


The weather forcast was good for the weekend, so we decided to go for another long day hike picked from our guide book. We picked a medium one that started from Kita-Akikawabashi up to the Hossawa no Taki (Hossawa waterfall). We stopped by the 90-year old post office that still functioned but also had double duty as a wood carver's shop.

The hike itself wasn't anything spectacular - just a nice opportunity to get out of the city and go for a long hike in the humid weather. Josie, a fellow teacher, will be creating another movie/slide show that I will post when available.

Sunday was supposed to be rainy, so we had plans to hang around the house and catch up on stuff, but it dawned bright and sunny. Joan wanted some plastic fencing for the beans in her garden to climb, so we biked down to J-Mart, a large home/garden center with limited groceries and department store stuff. Joan also tried on a hat!

On the way back, we found a little farm/orchard that was selling kiwis for a very good price! We have been a lot of them with our granola, but the supply and prices are not great. Joan plans on making this a regular stop. She even had me take her picture at the stall.

Then, as we are planning a camping trip to Hokkaido Island, we decided to go to Shinjuku, one of the busier shopping hubs in Tokyo to some large camping/outdoor stores to comparison shop. We have ordered some stuff from REI, and a friend is bring it over, but shoes are hard to choose without trying them on. However, even if things are in our sizes, the prices are almost double! REI here we come...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Links to some of our experiences...

If you have been reading the blog, you know about our trips out to the mountains to help Kevin and Tomoe with the roof thatching and rice planting.

Here are some interesting links from his blog:

A Night Out on the Town!

Yesterday, Saturday, was a rainy, slow day. Since we were still out of internet (solved today, thank goodness!), I had spent most of the afternoon at the university, catching up on emails and uploading photos. As Joan had been invited to one of her adult student's ukelele concert, we had decided to go out for dinner.

At first, we had thought of going to the "kaiten" (converyor belt) sushi restaurant again, but I
made a case to go to one of the smaller restaurants just by our apartment building that we have not been to. We debated about which one to go to but just went with the closest one since we plan on going to all of them anyways.

We walked in and immediately realized it was a "greasy spoon" diner. There were a handful of locals, sitting at the two tables and watching baseball, who looked surprised to see to foreigners. The proprietor indicated that we should take a seat at the stools in front of the counter and handed us menus. We laboriously read the hiragana (Japanese alphabet) and katakana (modified alphabet for foreign words) names of the dishes and figured out they had ramen. Joan did not want that dish and so worked with the lady to decide on rice and fish (gohan to sakana).

The prices were really cheap, but we were a little skeptical about the food based on how the place looked. The lady bustled around her kitchen space right in front of us, pulling Joan's fish out of the fridge and plopping it on the grill. She heated up the large pot of water and quickly
dumped in my ramen noodes. Joan's rice bowl was filled, along with another smaller one of miso soup. My noodels came out and were topped with chopped green onion, seaweed, pork, and bamboo. Before we new it, the dishes were slid in front of us, and she indicated for us to tuck in.

Luckily are initial imperssions were quite wrong, and the food was delicious. I need to go back to the ramen master down the street for a taste comparison because this lady's ramen was killer!

Quite full and pleased, we paid our bill and explained who we were and where we lived. It was interesting to find that they knew all about our apartment buildings, where it was, and that is was full of foreigners. I
guess that is not too suprising; there are not too many foreigners here, and the building has been there for years.

With some time to spare, we walked around the neighborhood, down small side streets and alleys, peering into people's yards. The Japanese style of landscaping and architecture is really interesting. We met an old lady walking her incredibly cute dog and got some good animal time while trying to chat with her in Japanese.

Then we had to pick up the pace to make it to the concert on time. It was being held at the driving school, which is between our place and the university - maybe a five-minute walk. I think it is a private business in a large building it shares with others, but out back is a fairly large
driving course of condensed roads and intersections.

The concert was held to raise funds for orphans (at least that's what we think it was for), and donations were collected at the door. There were three groups, all wearing matching Hawaiian shirts and dresses, and they played wonderful Hawaiian, Okinawan, and Japanese music. It was a very pleasant hour and a half. The man with his head in a driver's license was the MC of the
show and the representative of the driving school.

After the show, we slowly walked to the grocery store to some supplies and ice cream! It was a very nice evening overall. It felt good to get out of the house and do something in the community.