A travel blog

02 October 2014

Natural Disasters

I'm rather beginning to think the Japanese wish me well but would rather I confine my travels to other ports o' call.

The last time I set the date three years ahead of time to go to Japan, this happened:

and then this:

and of course shortly thereafter, this:

  Shortly after I returned from Japan in 2011 I started planning for this year's return trip. I'm leaving for Japan in the very, very, very early morning.  Shortly after I arrive, I should encounter this.

I tried to get a little footage showing what a category 4 typhoon looks like on the ground but apparently not that many people, once they're actually inside one, determine that going outside for a while to get footage is their best course of action.  So, here's just a photo:

I have to say I found this a bit surprising in view of the fact that people seem perfectly willing to stick their children's heads in the mouths of grizzly bear for a photo to amuse and one-up the neighbors with, or, you know, insert your stupidest photo-taking   I found this one,

but like the child/bear thing this involves someone else's being in danger rather than the photographer.  So maybe, I don't know, there's something about category 4 typhoons that instill a certain amount of reasonableness in people.  Maybe, you know, people who live in the world of typhoons are less likely to be stupid than people who live in the world of hurricanes.

I'm not sure the evidence bears this out however:

Whatever the truth of the matter, however, I will be flying in to Kyoto from the northeast just as typhoon Phanfone (sorry, if you're trying to pronounce that you're on your own) arrives from the southwest.  I've been in hurricanes before, but in all cases I've been in the mountains in temperate climates, usually hours from the sea, which I understand not to be the friendliest environment for tropical storms.

And, who knows, maybe a class 4 typhoon could in a small way settle down the output of Ontakesan, the volcano that just blew in Japan.  In any event I wish you whatever kind of weather you prefer; I'm guess at least that doesn't include volcanoes.  

Whatever your preferences, if you know me, or if you've read much of my little blog, you know that I love rain. Swimming while walking in my street clothes, however, may be another matter.  Also, whether or when I can next blog may be problematic.  Anyway,  じゃまたね、see you soon I hope.

08 January 2014

Date and Time, and a Sense of Place

There's a date and time and probable places for the 2014 trip.  Huzzah.

Departing 3 October 2014.  Staying I hope in Fukuoka, Kanazawa and Nara.  No itinerary yet but I think I know where I'm staying.  

I also wanted to be serious just for a second or two.  I'd like to introduce a friend of mine, the map of Japan superimposed on a map of the eastern U.S.  I don't necessarily like making it so large that it dwarfs the rest of my blog, but I want you to be able to see it, so I don't think I have a lot of choice.

It's really bigger than a lot of people think.

This image has fidelity not only of size but also of latitude, meaning that cities and towns shown on the maps have the same relative latitude, or distance north of the equator.  So for example you'll notice that my current favorite city, Kyoto, has a latitude very close to that of Charlotte and, incidentally, to Henderson County, NC, my home.

Part of the reason I'm showing this map is that there were a number of people who were concerned about my safety when I went to Japan in 2011 a little less than three months after the Fukushima nuclear plant incident.  I kind of wish I'd had this handy map to show those people then.  The plant is just above the top of the "N" in the word "HONSHU," designating the largest of Japan's component islands.  So that would put the nuclear plant, on this map, about 150-200 miles east southeast of Washington DC, well off the east coast of Virginia. 

Kyoto in this case would be in the eastern suburbs of Charlotte NC.  Anyone who drives this area would realize that if this were all land it would take 7 hours of hard driving time on a clear interstate highway (including, I'd suggest, clear of pesky Highway Patrol vehicles with radar guns) to get from one to the other.  When you consider that radiation effects diminish more or less with the cube of the distance between the two spots, you realize that the plant's problems really didn't affect people in Kyoto.  It did however give me clear sailing from long lines of foreign tourists, who didn't realize how small the radiation effects would be in Kyoto.

This also gives you an idea of how varied the climate is in various parts of Japan, when you consider that even the parts of Japan shown on this map stretch from Florida to Canada, and the map doesn't even show Okinawa, the largest of the Ryuku islands that would on this map be well down into the Gulf of Mexico, maybe three hundred miles off the coast of Fort Myers Florida, perhaps about the halfway point on a line between New Orleans and Havana, Cuba.

If you're interested in where I'll be, Fukuoka is the southwesternmost city shown on the map of Japan.  Nara is just south of Kyoto, show on the map in southwestern Honshu (that big island), and Kanazawa, not shown here, is at the base of the western side of the large peninsula that looks a little like Denmark jutting up from the western coast of Honshu.  If you think Japan looks like a dragon, and some people do, this peninsula would be sticking up from the lower back. That's the one.

So, Japanese geography.  My trip in October.  Already gearing up for it. 

04 March 2013

Don't know the word for squishy

I can't find the word for it yet, but I don't think slimy "nurunuru" is the one I'm looking for.

I'm climbing back into the whole going-to-Japan thing, and not, IMHO, a moment too soon.  I've tentatively set a date -- 5 September 2014 -- to go back.  In the meantime I've started retackling the language, and with a vengeance.  It's in my head all the time.

In that respect, you may, if you're one of my few regular readers, recall something I referred to in a previous  post as an "Octopop."  It's a baby octopus on a stick.  I looked at it at the time, there in the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, with a big old fish-eye.

Get it?

Too octopus-like for me.
The main concern I had about eating one of those things was what I get when I bite into the head.  I like the thought of eating octopus, it's one of my favorite sushi dishes.  I think it's the texture, which is very firm (I once heard it described as "jaw wrestling").  No, it's not the idea of eating octopus that I mind, far from it.  It's the idea of eating whatever is in the head that I couldn't sign on for.  After years of seeing Star Trek aliens with big heads I kept imagining these little buggers filled with just a massive brain.  I'm just not at octopus brains yet.  Or at least not, you know, raw.  Give me time.

But then recently I went back to a web site for the Nishiki Market, where I saw these delicacies, and read that they're filled with quail eggs.  Well, that's not so bad. Especially if they're hard-boiled.  And at only 200 yen apiece, it's a steal.

So, I went up to our local market, which sells a sort of ex-frozen sushi, and bought some squid salad and, yeah, baby octopus.  That's two things, the squid salad and the baby octopus.  The squid salad I'd already had and, aside from being a trifle too sweet, it was pretty good.  So, I figured, what the heck, buy the octopus.

Octopops at the Nishiki market.  With quail eggs inside.
The nice woman at the counter was not, I'm pretty sure, born in the Southern United States, or really any place within four or five thousand miles of it, and English was certainly not her first language.  Now, I've gotten pretty brave as a rule at trying out my Japanese with people I don't know, but here in my small town every time I've tried it with someone who appears to have a chance of understanding it, I've felt a fool when the person turns out to be from a country that's close to Japan, but not, you know, close enough actually to speak the language.  So, I just asked her in English if the octopus were stuffed with quail eggs.  Well, that went right by her.  It's ok really.  I don't know the word for "quail" anyway, though I'm great with "egg," which is the same in Japanese as "eggs" of course.  It's 卵, pronounced "tamago."  Anyway, to her credit, the lady at the counter had "thank you" down real nice.

So as I said, I bought two of the squid salad and one of the Octopus and went back to work and devoured the squid and then, like an 8-year-old looking at the swimming pool with cold water in it, and knowing I was going to do it sooner or later, I dived right in to the octopus.

Here they are, in a nice neat Japanese orderly way.
I have to say, they are a little too sweet for me.  They have been prepared with some sort of sweet syrupy thing that does not, to my mind, enhance the idea that you're putting a baby anything whole into your mouth and chewing.  It really ought to be pickled or something to go with what's going on. They're squishy and, to be fair, someone who called them "nurunuru" wouldn't be far off the mark.  So, ok, syrupy and slimy.  Also, if you'll compare the ones I had for lunch today with the ones at the Nishiki Market, mine didn't look as -- I don' know -- perky as the ones in the market.  Mine looked, well, dead, and those other ones looked like they were all having fun at a little baby octopus playground.
On octopus playground, with egg

Anyway, this may be my last time for doing the baby octopus thing until I get to Japan, where I hope they will have the same delightful texture and a more satisfactory, that is to say, less slimy-sweet, flavor.

By the way -- inside the head of the ones I had today: no brains, no quail eggs, no memories of a previous life.  It was just, well, empty space.  Someone apparently has the job they'd wanted since early childhood: scooping out baby octopus heads.

12 February 2013

Tokonoma 床の間

There is in the typical Japanese home, and in that I include the typical ryokan room, including the one I stayed in, a little alcove (littler than a room, I mean, which in Japan can mean pretty small) called a tokonoma, 床の間 in kanji.  It means, literally, "alcove."  It is for contemplation, display of heirlooms or a small piece of pottery, and typically perhaps a plant, maybe a flower.

My own takonoma!
When I came back from my first (and only, so far) trip to Japan I brought that beautiful culture with me, in a small way.  I brought back tea with me in a large way, and I drink tea almost every day at work.  

Anyway, over time a friend and I made this little credenza in my office into something of a combination tokonoma and tea service.  It is not, strictly speaking, an alcove, because it's just on a credenza, as I said, that sticks out from the wall.  And, to tell the truth, it shares space with a fax machine.  I don't know how many businesses in Japan have tokonoma that contain fax machines, but my guess is not many, and my further guess is that most of those are situated in the rooms of gaijin, foreigners.   Which of course I am, as I have plainly admitted many times.

Since writing the previous paragraph, I've done what I could to make this a better tokonoma.  Ganbatte, as they say -- do your best.  To the right is a photo of my little alcove as it appears in the middle of March 2013:

Still, though my desk gets messy easily, I do my best to keep my tokonoma-like area more tokonoma-like. 

The one at my ryokan.  Ganesha in foreground.  

27 February 2012

A little news.  I've decided to go back.  2014.  Probably, but not certainly, Kyoto again.  It won't be during the tsuyu, the rainy season.  Though I love that, I want to try a different time of year, a time perhaps when there are festivals or something.  Maybe fall.  Anyway, that's what I've decided.

Maybe in the fall.

25 June 2011

Shopping Kyoto

I've mentioned already that there's a lot of shopping to be done in Kyoto for foreigners, and, strictly speaking, it's not limited to deodorant.  Right now I'd like to take you on a little tour of the Nishiki Market. 

You're not as interested in the fascinating history of the market as I am, and please never underestimate my ability and tendency to bore anyone to death on just about any subject as long as they keep anything like a receptive look on their face or are not saying, "pardon me while I go get into my pajamas."  So I'll skip over the fascinating history of the market and get right to the, uh, market.

The first matter of interest concerning the nishiki market is its fascinating history.  It's been going on  in more or less the same place for six or seven hundred years.  It started as a fish market and gradually became a combination fish market and market for all kinds of other things.  It runs parallel to Shijo Dori, the main street that was a click north of where I was staying, so the west end of the market was about two blocks from me. 

Japanese lanterns -- how clever
The market is essentially both sides of the street, except that because the storefronts encroach into what doubtless was once the street, the "street" now is just a space between the storefront, the width of three or four people, maybe.  Or, I guess, nineteen or twenty Japanese people. 

It's roofed, which is useful in the rainy season and probably winter, too, and it's several blocks long, so there's a break at the end of the block for cars to mow you down when you cross the street.  Incidentally, those spots where the streets cross the market are the only places in all of Japan I ever saw where traffic doesn't yield to pedestrians, but rather the other way around.  I think there must some unwritten understanding, or, I guess, maybe it's just written in Japanese.  That would make some sense, I suppose.

Just the thing to quiet that crying child
Probably about half of the stalls are fish stalls.  I use the word "fish" in the Japanese rather than the American sense.  Fish, shellfish, fish heads, salted fish, raw fish, tempura (fried) fish.  I think rather my favorite was what I called the octopop.  I don't know how many words this picture is worth, so instead of doing the math I'll just post the pic. 

It may be hard to tell from the pic, but, yeah, the head is just about the size of a tootsie pop, except that I don't think it has a surprise chocolate filling, though, not having tried it I coudn't say for sure.  I really did try to imagine, though, what is in that squiggly little head.  I admit to being as curious as some and, as concerns Japan at least, perhaps more adventurous than most.  And I do love octopus, it's my favorite sushi.  Still, I walked right on by the octopops.  In answer to the question from the ninth row, yes, people do eat them right on the stick.  Or so I was told.  Maybe someone was pulling my leg.
With or, optional, without brains and eyeballs.

Get it?

For those who like their octopus in a more, I don't know, traditional form, there was just good old octopus tentacle.

In addition to the fish stalls, there were stalls that sold, I think, at least one of everything available anywhere in Kyoto.  Except minutes, I guess, on computers A and B.  There were shoe/sock/slipper stalls, kimono and yukata, stalls that sold fresh eggs and Japanese omelets (with the seaweed cooked in, actually pretty good), fruits, vegetables, green tea ice cream, desserts, porcelain dishes, and one of my favorites, cutlery.

No, not ginzu knives.  This is Japanese knifery in a store started by a bloke who also made swords for samurai warriors, in the 15th century, I think.

My Yanagiba
One of the interesting aspects of Japanese cutlery stores is that all of it is divided into two sides -- one for left handed people and one for everyone else.  In fact, when I expressed an interest in looking at yanagiba  the first thing they wanted to know was whether I was left- or right-handed.

The reason for this is that these knives are sharpened only on one side.  The other side is straight.  What this means is that rather than having two 15-degree edges, for a total of 30 degrees, like a German knife, the Japanese counterpart has one edge, say 12 degrees, for a total of, you know, 12 degrees.  So compared to the Japanese blade the German blade has the slicing power of, say, a ball-peen hammer.

Needless to say that's not for every job, and it requires lots of sharpening (the obliging fellow said sharpening was a snap and then proceeded to give me a rudimentary 45-minute lesson in sharpening the thing which includes such obvious necessities as how to place your feet, what angle to stand at and how far to stand from the counter.  At the end I promised to practice, practice, practice.).  Still, it renders a sharp blade that doesn't have a lot of trouble cutting raw fish.
It's the two symbols at the top, sa & mu (top to bottom)

I'd been looking for a Yanagiba for a while, so I bought this one (the right-handed version of course).  They insisted on putting my name into the blade, so rather than having them deal with my rather difficult last name I just asked them to make it "Samu," close enough.  Which they did.  This is "samu" in katakana, the kana "alphabet" used for difficult German names.

I went to the Nishiki Market almost every day, though I rarely bought anything, just a yukata and the knife (with sharpening stone, which works either left- or right-).  If you ever go to Kyoto, yes, by all means see the pagodas and the temples and the shrines.  See all the sights, but I urge you not to miss the Nishiki Market.  The sights, and the sounds, and the smells, all not to be missed.

24 June 2011

More Blogs about Buildings and Food

It could be anything, really.
I spoke recently about pachinko as being a central fact of walking down the street in Japan.  Fortunately, with an apparent total lack of zoning in Japan, every next place on any street can be a surprise.  The next spot on the street might really be anything, even something other than a pachinko parlor. 

I'm going to be talking for a minute about restaurants.  I think I might have mentioned this earlier, but I want to talk about it a bit more, because really Japan means restaurants.  We might like to think of it as Japanese food, but as Chandler would say, of course over there they just call it "food."

The reason there are so many restaurants all over Japan is pretty much the reason there are so many restaurants in big cities everywhere.  Because it's so mountainous 125 million people in Japan are living on about 25% of the land area.  As a result, the average Japanese family home is less than half the size of the American home.

As a result, the Japanese don't do much in-home entertaining.  In the U.S., TV solved that problem for us.  The Japanese, when they're socializing, often do it at restaurants though.
This one includes the dessert menu
? I love the ingenious way they display their wares.  Elsewhere, we put up menus, which rarely have photos.  The Japanese want to get those salivary glands working before you get into the building, so they put up plastic mock-ups of the possibilities.

They're usually pretty good, believe it or not.  I'm not saying you develop a sudden taste for plastic, and you are rarely fooled into thinking you're looking at the real thing because, of course, the plates and bowls are on their sides facing you and they do still have gravity in Japan. 

But they're showing you a lot about what it is, and even if you don't speak Japanese, there's usually a photo menu in the restaurant to match it up with the window display, and with the help of useful hand gestures including pointing, you often don't need Japanese in most of the restaurants most of the time.  And, if you do have a problem, you can always ask, "Nan desu ka" which in most restaurants means "what is that" but in Indian restaurants, of which there seem to be a lot, it might mean "Is that naan?"

Incidentally, the names of the foods are not always only in Japanese; sometimes they have English too, and even when they're in Japanese script, the name might be something that, if they tell you the Japanese name, you might recognize.  I was just looking at that photo above, for example.  The lower left-hand corner of the bottom shelf, the one that's not apparently a cup of tea, is labeled "Moka furoto."  So, that's a mocha float.  So, that sounds good and now I want a moka furoto.

And Look

I might as well go into this now.  Shop names were one of my favorite parts of looking around the Streets of Japan.  The ones in English, anyway, which is lots of them, and at the Kyoto Station, really most or maybe even all of them. 

When was your smallness got to know?
In case  you didn't catch Soup, below, you might want to check that out.  Notice, Soup isn't in the restaurant trade.  It's more your higher-end, what do they call it, "upscale" women's clothing.  No T-Shirts saying "Its smallness was got to know when it was able to go away to people gently," although goodness knows, maybe that's upscale.  I don't have a great sense of these things (I did, however, sincerely appreciate the fact that the designer of the t-shirt was sufficiently familiar with the intricacies of English grammar not to insert the unwanted apostrophe in "Its").  I also love that the motif is the word "Kind," one of my favorite words.

I could have really spent a day taking photos of shop titles of this kind.  One I took, partly for the plastic-food value and partly for lawyers, or for anyone who knows that it's a subject I taught in law school, is "UCC."  I don't know what it stands for, but it doesn't really have sufficiently broad appeal for me to print it here.

My favorite one, though, was a hair salon kind of right around the corner from me.  You've gathered by now that shop names are not picked primarily for marketing purposes, the way they might be in the U.S.  Nothing like UR BEST produce shop or TAS-T-SWEET ice cream.  No, so often in Japan they just pick a word, and whatever it is seems to do the trick.

I just don't know . . .
That said, I'm not sure they always give the kind of thought they should to some of these names.  This shop I mentioned, well, it would have made me think twice about even going in to check things out.

Welcome UK, Belgium and India.