Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June 29th

We finally bought couch so I won't be sitting on the floor much longer - yay! While I wait for the delivery guy here are some pictures I've taken of bad English - it is, of course, a bizillion times better than my Japanese - and other things that have caught my attention.

Apparently ideas of masculinity are different here or, maybe, it is a positive message about women's strength. "Training One's Body To Strengthen Is Effeminate"

Their mascot doubles as a delicious snack. One thing I've noticed is a very efficient use of space and resources, although seeing the crispy rice Okoshi life sized is a little creepy.

Does anyone else think this is a picture of a baby with a beer?

This is the sign introducing one of the exhibits at the aquarium. Honestly, I was wondering what everything would taste like, not if they would be my friend.

This is some tasty tempura I had on Friday night. Presentation is very important and deep fried noodles are very good.

"It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time." I think that says it all.

Monday, June 27, 2011

June 28th

Last night, in order to stamp out that awful Ethiopian restaurant experience we decided to try Desi Chai, an Indian restaurant that's about a 25min walk from our apartment, so much closer than the one we went to in Sannomiya. It was very good. I wanted to take a picture but realized I'd brought the camera but forgot to put in new batteries. There was one man working there and he spoke excellent English and the menu was in English and Japanese which was one point in the restaurant's favor. He brought a pitcher of water and left it on the table, point number 2. What we ordered was delicious and spicy and we were actually full afterwards, points 3, 4 and 5. He asked us if we wanted a grapefruit type fruit for dessert free of charge because the tree grows in his yard and he just brings in the fruit to give away when they're in season. He sliced it into bite sized pieces and it was like a cross between a grapefruit and a blood orange, point 6. It wasn't expensive, point 7. We will become regular customers and when/if any of you come to visit we will definitely take you there. The man is Indian and said he's been living in Japan for 40 years. He worked in a restaurant for over 30 of them and once he retired he decided to open his own place.

After dinner, because it had gotten cooler I played with my camera out on the deck. Here are some pictures of the Kobe skyline at night. When we first got here I had problems sleeping because of the city noise and the light pollution but now I hardly notice it. That is, except when student motor cycle gangs come plodding past our apartment. I've seen scooters and motorcycles just stall out on the climb, you can tell they're working hard to get students to school on time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

June 25th

We decided to go to the Osaka Aquarium today for two reasons – I really like aquariums and we wanted some air conditioning. It is hot and humid here – like sweat drops forming on your upper lip while sitting still hot and humid. We took the train from Rokko to Umida in downtown Osaka. We can see Osaka to the east from our apartment so it isn't all that far away and the train ride was only about a half hour with stops at every station along the way. From there we had to get on another train and then transfer to the subway. Unfortunately the maps were only written out in kanji so we had to ask someone to tell us which stop was the one we wanted. It took some time and we were a bit nervous but we made it to the aquarium! It was great. You start at the top and work your way down looking at different depths of the tanks. Not only were there fishes but otters, capybara (the world's largest rodent, they're like huge hamster dogs, they can weigh 140lbs), dolphins, and deep sea crabs. The aquarium claims to have the largest whale shark in captivity. The best part was the “resting areas.” They had chairs and benches set up and you could just sit in the AC and watch the fish swim by.

The fish stayed on the sting ray the entire time we were there, she must have enjoyed the view.

After the aquarium we set out to find the “only Ethiopian restaurant in all of Kansai.” The Kansai region, which includes Osaka and Kobe, has over 22million people so we were happy to find an Ethiopian restaurant so relatively close. We had to navigate another train station and a gigantic shopping/restaurant district and rely on the kindness of a stranger who ran two blocks in order to confirm he knew what we were looking for before he'd give us directions but we found it. We would have been better off if we hadn't. The food was mediocre and really, really small portions (even for Japan) and VERY expensive. We knew that when we looked at the menu but if the food had been better and there had been more we would have been OK with the price but it was not worth half of what we paid. It was so underwhelming I didn't even think to take a picture. I guess we're going another three years without Ethiopian food.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 22nd

Awhile ago, during a dinner of noodles and other stuff, we got to hear the muzak version of Yankee Doodle and I asked Craig if he thought we'd ever hear something just totally inappropriate because most people don't understand English. Muzak and Disney is still the most common thing we hear, but some stores seem to like to play American hip hop in order to prove how edgy they are. Well, my question was answered today. I went to the South Rokko Mall in order to get some much needed galoshes and while browsing a shoe store, I definitely heard some inappropriate music. The chorus and most of the verses of the song were pretty tame, standard 'I want money and hos' misogyny lazy performers fall back on, when the obligatory guest rapper started up. I'm guessing the song was designed so his section could be cut for radio play and left in for 'real' fans. So, while old ladies and parents with little kids checked out shoes, we got to listen to what positions the guest rapper prefers and the kind of noises he wants to hear those b*tches making. It was pretty surreal.

Monday, June 20, 2011

June 20th

A couple of observations:

Restaurants don't provide napkins in the traditional sense. Instead of paper or cloth napkins left on the table, you're given a warmed towel in fancy places and a wet nap in noodle bars and those vending machine places. The first time we got one we were confused since you usually don't get wet naps until after the meal and only at BBQ and Ethiopian restaurants. Also, I have yet to go into a public bathroom with paper towels, they all seem to have air dryers. As a result of this, I think, people carry their own towels – Douglas Adams would be proud. They aren't full sized, just like a wash cloth or hand towel. It is a habit I am going to have to get into.

We've seen a good number of people walking around with hospital masks on. We thought it was because they were trying to keep from getting sick, but not so. One of Craig's co-workers told him that during this time of year people wear the masks because of allergies. I think that's brilliant. In the US people just use drugs that, according to their makers own research don't actually work (read Our Daily Meds), instead of actively blocking the allergens. During cold and flu season, though I suppose any time is fine, people wear the masks if they are sick in order to not spread their germs. That's even more brilliant. I don't know if the Japanese are as big of workaholics as Americans but, if they won't stay home, at least they protect others when they're infectious diseases.

Here are the top three most common establishments, based on my observations, in our neighborhood -

#3 Bakeries – They often have English names; Rhubarb is just one we walk past on our way to the train. Their fare includes green matcha (ground up green tea leaves) muffins, azuki stuffed pastries, doughnuts, hots dogs baked into rolls with garnish on top, muffins with hard boiled eggs inside, and excessively sweet rolls. They also sell loafs of bread that are usually a third of the size of a loaf in the US and look like lousy white bread. They have not figured out good bread here, yet. That's why you could easily eat rice with all three meals.

#2 Pachinko and Slot parlors – pachinko is apparently like a vertical pin ball machine. From the doorway they look and sound like giant video game parlors, which is basically what they are. Gambling for money is illegal in Japan so you win tokens. The tokens are then exchanged for prizes – pens, little toys, bicycles, gift certificates etc. According to Wikipedia, it is possible to exchange the tokens for cash but you have to go to a separate location that is not operated by the parlor. They are often operated by the Yakuza, Japan's organized crime. To Craig and I they look like hell. Sartre said hell is other people, I think adding blaring music and game sirens, flashing lights, and heavy cigarette smoke (smoking in public places is completely allowed here, you can usually smell a parlor) to crowds of people would be much worse.

#1 Hair Salons – there are five that I can identify on the one street we walk down to get to the train and the walk is only 20 minutes. Yesterday I talked about how shopping is a national past-time. Well, getting your hair done must be in second place. Maybe, because almost everyone's hair ground state is black and straight, they go to the salons in order to individualize. A lot of women and men dye their hair and get perms. Maybe it's more common in the states then I think because there is so much variation to begin with, but it is really obvious when you see a Japanese guy with dirty blond, curly hair that they've had their hair done.

Here is a limerick Craig came up with last night:

There once was a girl living in Rokko

who liked her some morning cocoa

one day in her mug

she spotted a bug

and then she went completely loco

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June 18th

Lousy weather today. It was either raining or really humid. We decided to find something to do that was indoors.

Turns out there isn't much to do indoors except shopping. Since we're not shoppers we decided to check out the Hyogo Prefecture Art Museum. Hyogo prefecture is the area in which Kobe is located. Prefectures are like states but major cities are their own prefectures. So, even though Kobe and Osaka are right next to each other, Osaka is not in Hyogo, it is in its own prefecture. Imagine if New York City was its own state and then the rest of New York state was a totally different state.

We visited the museums permanent collection. They also have a visiting Kandinsky exhibit but we didn't want to use up all our rainy day plans on one Saturday. They had a mixture of pastoral landscapes and modern art. There were some works that looked more like my idea of traditional Japanese art, very simple brush strokes on silk or detailed woodblock prints called Ukiyoe, but they were all done in the early 20th century.

The museum is right on the p
ort, so after checking out the art we tried walking along the water. After the earth quake in the 90's the city built a park area with wide walk ways, basket ball courts, areas to barbecue and have picnics, and an amphitheater area along that section of the port. There was hardly anyone out because of the weather so it was the most spacious place we've been to here. Unfortunately, the rain only stopped for about 10min so we didn't last long outside either.

We decided to try one of the ubiquitous Waffle House/Denny's inspired restaurants here. Their models are of sandwiches and pancakes and waffles. It was rather disappointing. I got a Japanese BLT with a fried egg in there too. Craig got a “Chiken Basuketto.” The pancake and waffle selection was so over the top sweet with syrup and whipped cream and ice cream we're guessing they're actually for dessert or, if Japanese people think Americans eat that kind of stuff for a meal, no wonder they name restaurants King and Heavy.

At this point it was about 4pm, raining steadily, and we don't even have a couch at home, yet. So, we decided to go to Sannomiya and see what movies were playing. The movie theater is on the 9th floor of a mall. Seriously, the mall had 7 floors of shops, the 8th was all restaurants, and the 9th was the movie theater and more restaurants. This is one of the stores and I couldn't resist getting a picture of Craig standing under the sign. Luckily, theaters here tend to show films either with subtitles or dubbing, and Craig knew the kanji for 'kanji' so we knew which time to go to get subtitles so we could listen to the original English. We saw X-Men First Class, which I thought was a really great super hero movie. I don't know why it isn't doing better. The only problem was the subtitling is all in Japanese so when characters spoke in German or Russian we didn't get the translation. Craig did the German for me but we just had to guess at the Russian scenes.

After the movie we went to a well recommended Indian restaurant. It was really 'oishi' delicious. We had palak paneer, chickpeas in a curry sauce and naan, glorious naan!

Friday, June 17, 2011

June 17th

The major excitement yesterday was going to the Friday Asian Food Festival with a bunch of people from RIKEN. They seem to travel in packs, there were about 20 of us. The Friday Asian Food Festival happens the third Friday of every month during the summer – this was the first one of the season so it was crowded. There were booths selling Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and (insert country here) food. Naoko was with the group so here is a picture of our patron saint.

Raj, a PI at RIKEN bought us the caricature as a welcome to Japan gift.

After years of spending time with graduate students who will split a $7 tab to the penny, going out with people who have real jobs is a little strange and refreshing. People kept buying food and just dropping it on the table for all to enjoy and no one seems to worry about the cost. We had samosas and chicken tikka, little wonton wrappers stuffed with veggies and chicken then tied into packages and deep fried, spicy cashews, more chicken tikka served in a pita so I could almost pretend I was eating Greek food, tempura fish, and these melon sodas that seal with a glass ball the size of a marble. When you buy them the guy has to open them for you by pushing the ball inside the bottle. We closed out the festival chatting away. I was so excited to talk to people in English that I may have come on a little strong with Naoke, the guy in charge of RIKEN's public outreach, but I was excited to hear they target adults and not elementary school children.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16th

I decided to check out the “English Studio” and try to find the Nada (the ward we live in) Library today. There's a sign for the English Studio on the way to the JR train station. It provides English lessons, cooking classes and the “English Shower Method.” I forgot to ask about the English Shower Method. They offer one-on-one English tutoring and group “chat” time. I'm going to email my resume to see if I can do some volunteer tutoring since I have no experience teaching English. They don't use a text book because they concentrate on conversation. Apparently, Japanese people learn a bunch of grammar and vocab in school but don't learn how to really use it. This is according to Yuki, the woman who does the administrative stuff for the studio.

Next up was the library. It is located on the third floor of a mall. The mall escalators don't actually take you to it so I had to wander around until I found an elevator that would go up to that floor. It was really, really crowded. Granted it was smaller than the Bozeman library, even though there are a lot more people in the Nada ward than in Bozeman, but there wasn't an empty seat and people were standing and reading. I don't get it. I keep expecting to find less people during the week day but everything
is still crowded. I was going to do some reading and note taking for a movie idea but seeing there wasn't an empty seat I headed back up the hill.

I spotted this public sculpture near a park. All four sides are dedicated to kids. One side has kids flying kites, one they're jumping rope, one they seem to be enjoying the weather, but this was the most interesting side. It looks to me like one kid is punching the other – I guess it is supposed to be all in good fun.

I hit the public restroom in the mall and noticed the SOS button. Our bathroom at home has a call button too. I wonder if bathroom emergencies are so common they had to install an SOS button or if some law maker suffered an embarrassing incident and pushed through legislation requiring them. I thought all the toilet buttons were interesting too. Check out the flushing sound button.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June 15th

Sorry this is late, I was up late Skyping with mom.

Amerika” edition

Today, while taking my morning walk, I noticed a restaurant I had to go back to with my camera. It is called “King and Heavy American Power Food.” Based on the pictures it specializes in large pieces of meat with french fries on the side. On Friday night, while we were having dinner with people from Craig's work, one of the women told us she thought all Americans would party like Ke$ha. Not exactly the way I'd like to be thought of, king and heavy white rapper chick. Of course, Japanese people are supposed to be all about Hello Kitty and I haven't seen that here, yet.

I indulged in some “Amerika” food the other night and ordered the “hanbaagaa” plate. It was more like a piece of meat loaf. There were little hot dogs and french fries too.

Oh, and remember the dog bus I saw earlier. It is an elementary school bus. I saw a bunch of them early this morning picking up little kids. There were also ones covered in paintings of cartoon characters. They do like their cute stuff, even if I haven't seen Hello Kitty.

This is a dessert we bought at the grocery store. The Japanese don't seem big on chocolate but love azuki. Azuki are red beans that look a little like kidney beans but are soooooo much tastier. This is because they're served sweetened. Inside of the clear gelatinous stuff is azuki paste, basically sweetened refried red bean – it is so much better than it sounds. So, not only is the dessert the size of ping pongs but it features beans.

After work Craig decided he need some foreign food, as in non-Japanese food. During lunch that day he thought they were serving gnocchi in tomato sauce and was really excited. It turned out to be fried prawns in a Chinese spicy chili sauce. There is a pizza place three minutes from the rokko train station. It was called “Pizza House F,” we don't know if there is an A through E somewhere. The majority of the menu was written in katakana, the alphabet they use for loaner words, so if you could pronounce things with a Japanese accent then you could figure out what the menu said because it was all transliterated English. I manged to read the entire toppings section – sure it took 5 min but now I know you can put bananas, eggs, squid, and tuna on a Japanese pizza. We opted for the more traditional bacon, mushroom and garlic. It was really good. We also ordered “Itaria” salads. We figured they'd have curred meats but they actually had pieces of clams and squids. It was more expensive than a noodle bar but definitely took care of the foreign food craving.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Junkudo craziness

So I'm taking a Japanese class for the foreign staff at RIKEN CDB. The textbook is called Minna no Nihongo, and it's actually all in Japanese; you have to buy a separate English translation to go with it. I guess the idea is to force you to get over your fear of reading a full page of Japanese text.

Before the class started (this was during our second week or so here), I went out to get the textbook. This involved wandering around Sannomiya until I got tired of looking on my own and eventually asked someone on the street where I could find a big bookstore. She said a bunch of stuff that, as far as I could tell, contained the word "left." Correctly interpreting my blank stare, she used hand gestures and a few words of English to make it clear that I needed to walk down the street, turn left, and the store would be on my left.

Thus was I introduced to Junkudo, probably the biggest bookstore in Kobe. If I could read in Japanese, I'd probably find it even more impressive. I think it's 5 stories (or maybe 6); all the English language books were, as far as I could tell, on the 4th floor. I got my textbooks and went home, thinking the adventure was over.

The next day, Naoko Yamaguchi, CDB international affairs coordinator and patron saint of highly educated illiterates, gave me a big manila envelope that contained, among other things, a spare copy of Minna no Nihongo that she had sitting around. So I had one copy too many of this book, which is worth 2,625 yen.

Begin Junkudo round 2. A couple of days later, I found myself in Junkudo again, hoping to return the book for cash. Through hand motions and limited English (his) and Japanese (mine), the clerk made it clear to me that I couldn't return the book for cash; I had to find another book to exchange it for. It was late and I was in too much of a hurry to shop, so I decided to wait.

Yesterday was Junkudo round 3. I went in with a plan. I was going to get myself a pocket-sized English-Japanese dictionary, exchange it for my extra textbook, and be on my way. 10 minutes tops. I quickly found a small dictionary costing 1,800 yen. That meant that, with sales tax, the value of my new book was 735 yen less than my old one -- about $9.16. More money than I'd usually like to just lose, but better than the whole 2,625 yen. The clerk (who spoke, as far as I could tell, no English at all) had to make a phone call to make sure this was OK, then started explaining something very important to me, pointing to the price tags of both books and even pulling out a calculator to bring up that magic number of 735 yen. I just kept telling her it was OK, I understood that I was losing money on this deal. Eventually I realized that she wasn't taking no for an answer -- I wasn't going to leave that store without 2,625 yen worth of book. It's hard to find a book for 735 yen, especially when you're stuck in the English section. Eventually I grabbed the smallest paperback in the translated Japanese literature -- a short story called "The Hell Screen" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Exactly 735 yen. She seemed relieved that I'd correctly figured out what she wanted me to do.

I'd already read it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Day 17 June 11th

Today we did some exploring so I've got lots of pictures. We started out by going to Port Island so I could see where Craig is working. It is a human made island that's about 30 years old. Other than the RIKEN building and Craig's desk there wasn't much to see. One public sculpture/fountain and an Ikea, the third in Japan. Is what we came upon while walking around. There is a “Mimami Koen” South Park :) and a Central Park but the mosquitoes were out in force so taking a pleasant stroll wasn't an option. The Port Liner train had some nice views. Apparently it is quite the faux pas to stand in the wrong place on the platform.

We saw this sign, which we suspect is a Japanese Haiku.

After that we decided to take the train to Suma Temple. The temple was built in 886 A.D. and is the main temple for a specific sect of Buddhism. The location is mentioned both in The Tale of Genji, which was written during the 11th century and is the first novel ever written and The Tale of the Heike, an epic poem describing events from the 12th century. There were people clearly worshipping and leaving offerings so we were trying to be respectful with the picture taking. I didn't take any of anything people were praying in front of or chanting in. The grounds were gorgeous. Full grown trees were trimmed like bonsai, the buildings were ornately decorated, there was a museum section with little figurines made of rocks acting out famous historical meetings in the area and some statues were on motion detectors and would move if you passed your hand over them. Craig posed with a group of monkey statues that acted out see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and a couple more we hadn't heard of.

The Suma temple is a short walk from Suma Beach. In the summer time temporary structures are build and it turns into a boardwalk area. You can take a train right to the edge of the sand. These are pictures we took on a little pier people were fishing off of. I know my audience so all these pictures of Craig and I are for you, mom.