Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Tokyo Sandwich - The Bread

And so it was, we arrived in Tokyo at the Shinagawa Station on the evening of March 29th. After a brief huddle staring at the station map with a couple of other foreigners, a kindly American gentleman realized our concern and promptly directed us to where our hotel stood. (It's funny. A fellow JET who is Canadian once told me that when she encountered other foreigners in Japan, it was typically only the Americans whom she met that would offer any kind of "Hello!" or greeting, rather than just pass you by. In light of that, and what happened to us at the arrival station, I find her observation encouraging in today's world. Sometimes you'd think Americans are seen by others as the most snobbish, standoffish sort, and then you leave the country and find out things like this.)

The nightlife in Tokyo sure looks grand! However, this trip wasn't about bar-hopping (ugh! what a mindless occupation that is) or late night marathons doing karaoke, sipping sake in smoke-filled rooms (now that one I know, but it somehow loses its luster after the fifth hour singing nothing but anime theme songs). It was about long days, and even longer walks trekking from location to location. Needless to say, neither of us lost any sleep!

Looking out our window the next morning from the 28th floor of the hotel, we decided our first little jaunt would be Tokyo Tower. It was a 4 km walk one-way, and with the prospect of taxis turning our pocket money into chump change, we knew our legs could handle it.

As we walked the streets, my mom found it very interesting how so many Japanese men and women seemed to be dressed up. I told her we were in a business district, which explains part of it, but it's true: men, if not in a suit, were sporting neckties and black dress shoes while the women all strutted about in knee-high boots or heels and often very short skirts. And with rice and fish such a staple in the diet, finding a fat person in Tokyo was like finding an anorexic in McDonald's.

Soon we were in front of Tokyo Tower, a structure built on the same design principles used to erect the Eiffel Tower in Paris (though, a placard here boasted that while the two towers are of comparable height and similar build, Tokyo Tower weighs significantly less).

While there, we traveled up a cramped mass transit elevator to the first observation deck (about 500 feet up). At various locations near the base of the tower were shopping malls, an eatery, a max museum, an indoor dungeon maze, an arcade, and a gift shop. I took the opportunity to snap a few shots of the surrounding sights (below).

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local Chinese shop (of which Tokyo has many, run by Japanese of course). My mom thought it remarkable how many Japanese food joints did not exercise restrictions against smoking. I nodded and wheezed, "Yeah, it sucks!" in reply.

Looking northwest from Tokyo Tower. The tall buildings here strike me as the type some nefarious executive might operate out of, like some megacorp from Shadowrun.
Looking east from Tokyo Tower. 
A view of an inner city area from Tokyo Tower.
A view of the area we traveled from our hotel window. The large empty space in the center of the shot is a massive open air switch-track and service junction abutting the Shinagawa Station where trains from all over Tokyo converge.

The next day we traveled by subway to Shibuya, a common tourist and shopping district where it is said one of the busiest intersections in the world can be viewed. I waited for just the right opportunity to catch the intersection when the frame was filled with as many Japanese heads as I could see. Both of us having visited New York City before, we agreed that Shibuya reminded us a lot of Times Square.

Next time we'll take a look at more of the specific places and happenings that we experienced on our Tokyo trip, delving deeper into the smog-choked urban jungle, and I'll pile on the good stuff as I endeavor to build for you the picture perfect Tokyo sandwich!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In the local haps...

The second weekend in November of '09 I worked the boot rental stand at the annual Oirase Town Salmon Festival. (For those who know, it bore a passing resemblance to Rio Vista's Bass Festival, with about the same level of notoriety.) I helped greet visitors to the festival as they rented knee-high rubber boots (which I'm wearing, as pictured below) and waist-high waders for use during the salmon catch, the day's crowning event.

These fine ladies were two of the workers who helped in taking money at the boot rental tent. The other men and I (or the "Mennonites," if you will) busied ourselves with fetching properly sized pairs of waterproof foot-and-leg-wear for the customers. It was a brisk and blithe business, punctuated by bursts of blustery wind buffeting our soon-to-be battered and bitterly cold bivouac. (Whew!) The rain did come down hard during short grab-the-tent-and-man-the-pitons periods. At least once I thought our tent would up-end and fly away.

Above, you can see a group herding the remaining salmon with planks and boards into a smaller area for ease of capture.

During the aforementioned catching of the salmon, participants are asked to step into the wading pond – with little more than maybe a pair of rented gloves, a plastic sack, and a camera to catch the action – before awaiting the signal to go. After that, it's up to a little bit of luck, a fair amount of daring, and the fickle fate of the fish to be yours as you go about trying to catch one by hand! It's not easy, and it's not all that hard, but if there's one thing for sure these suckers have teeth! They're mean little sons-of-upriver-spawners. The fellow pictured above in the center almost found out the hard way as he struggled with his catch. Below you might see a couple of those that got away, only temporarily avoiding their eventual fate on someone's dinner table.

Jumping ahead, I snapped this next picture (below) on the 10th of March, during the Kinoshita Chugakkou (Junior High School) Graduation Ceremony. It shows only the stage area for the ceremony, which lasted about ninety minutes and saw at least 80 students ascend the steps here to receive their certificate of completion. (Alas, no shots of the staff nor students themselves as per the privacy agreement I've made.)

I also got to attend a nice potluck banquet/cultural exchange/dinner theater the second Sunday in March. I enjoyed a nice round of ryokucha (green tea) prepared in the traditional Japanese style, partook of a veritable schmorgesborg of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Western foods, and watched a variety of short skits and performances put on by local students, teachers, and workers. One of the best was a traditional Japanese dance, (put on by Melissa, an ALT from Towada), as seen below.

Not bad, eh? It's been a groovy eight months so far! Here's hoping my next 15 are! Be sure to leave a comment if you have a question about anything. Up next! A recap of my trip to Tokyo.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

(*hic*) Drinking on the job (*hic*)

Back in November of '09, the boys and I headed over to the local brewery during office hours for a little civic inspection tour of the Momokawa Sake Factory. This was official business. I'm not kidding. The morning that day (a Monday as I recall – well played, Japan, well played indeed!) was intentionally set aside for the sole purpose of visiting the sake factory, taking a guided tour of the facilities, and sampling some of their fine local vintage.

Momokawa (which means "peach river") brand sake is famous throughout Japan. It is said to be one of the top brands for sake brewing in the country, if not the world. There's even a franchise in Oregon that produces sake using methods replicating those found here in Aomori. The climate in both these places is well-suited to the master vintner's needs. Check it out here for more information and even to purchase some of your own. "A glass of sake a day keeps bad spirits away!" (I don't know if anybody's ever said that, but they should have if they didn't.)

The beginning of the guided tour. As you can see here, the process is very simple. You start with a small anime character carrying a backpack filled with rice. He must safely deliver the rice into various holding bins and distilleries while dodging red circles and blue rectangles. If he fails he must commit seppuku and await his replacement. If successful, the rice juice is spat out at the bottom and...VOILĂ€...sake is made!
A very excellent mural depicting rice preparation and distillation around the time of the Meiji Restoration.
Here's what the factory floor looks like today.
A traditional Japanese room reserved for drinking sake and polite socializing located on the factory grounds. 
Momokawa Sake Babes – eat your hearts out Budweiser Bimbos! Sekushi ne?
(from left to right) Ruairi, James, myself, and our kind Japanese tour guide and host. I call it, "Three Shmoes And A Japanese Joe."

Monday, April 19, 2010

April showers bring May...WTF!?

You know, it'd be next to impossible to find unpainted Easter eggs in the snow.

Oirase got a few centimeters of snow this last Saturday night, thankfully it had all melted off before I woke up late Sunday morning. And I just learned today that Tokyo also received some snow (a FULL 4 FREAKIN' INCHES of it! – we just missed the deluge, Mom) over the weekend. I mean, I've heard of April having some bipolar weather, but this calls for a full dose of anti-depressants and a Chinese finger-trap variation straight jacket!

So, being that it's still winter here in Japan, I thought I'd take this opportunity to continue catching myself up on what you've missed over the past six months: Snowbound Edition!

First major snow, end of November, from the top floor of the office building I work out of. (If you squint real hard, you might be able to make out a sign with a "U" on it [left], and a red-topped tower in the distance [right]. These are the Universe Mart [next door to my apartment], and Jusco Mall, respectively. 50 points if you find Waldo!)
A slightly different view; end of the day.
Road to the Jusco Mall
From the office again, this time during a blizzard in January.
I like this picture mainly because it turned out so well – I took it doing 60 kph in the passenger seat of the car I'm driven in to school.
Me signing off until next time (when I went skiing for the first time ever in February).