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January 27, 2007

This week in food

Fajita night The Usual Nabe

This week brought a few different culinary adventures here in Japan. First, FAJITA NIGHT. L's family sent us a care package that included, among other culinary treats from America, two packages of tortillas. We haven't yet found them in Japan, and M really misses this staple. Here, M shows off the first fajita. He blissfully enjoyed eating fajitas, quesadillas, and burritos three meals a day for much of the week.

For a slightly more Japanese experience, we traveled to the Shinjuku area with one of L's coworkers. We ordered this dish called "nabe", which is a quick-cooking stew. There are many varieties of nabe, and our waiter explained that this one is called "the usual nabe." It has just about everything from cabbage to crab claws (click to get a closer look). This huge bowl is designed for one or two people, so the things you've heard about small Japanese portions are not completely true.

January 21, 2007

Sumo stomping

Ring Entering II Sumo Action

We had a great time watching the Sumo tournament! Matches start early in the morning and go up until about 6 pm, with the excitement building as the highest ranked wrestlers compete last. There is a lot of ceremony involved, both as the wrestlers enter the ring at the beginning of the day (left photo), and at the beginning of each match. The ring is considered a holy Shinto space, and there are actions meant to purify the ring and drive out evil from it.. The famous sumo stomping is actually part of this, as the wrestlers stomp out the evil.

After the ritual comes the "cold war" part of each match, where the wrestlers stare one another down. There is a 4 minute time limit to this portion, though that didn't come around until the middle part of this century. The wrestlers only begin when both are ready, and the referee makes them restart if it looks like one was not yet set for action. They make a dramatic "splat" when they both rush towards one another for the first time. Then, they try to push one another to the floor or out of the ring. Many of the matches were over in just a few seconds, but the really exciting ones had one wrestler appearing to overpower the other and put him off balance, only to have him recover and the situation reversed.

Sumo stew Wrestler on phone

The younger, lower ranking sumo wrestlers compete first. After their matches, they wandered the halls of the sumo stadium, chatting with audience members that stopped them as they passed by, and then watching their friends and rivals from the stands. It was a highlight for us to see them just cruising around...

We also got to enjoy sumo stew, the meal that the wrestlers eat for every meal. For just 200 yen (about $1.75), they give you this wonderful bowl with loads of veggies like carrots and cabbage, as well as some meat. It was one of the best meals M has had here in Japan, and he briefly considered a career in sumo in order to get access to it more often.

See all of our Sumo pictures

January 20, 2007

The Year of the Boar ... and the Eggplant?


According to the Tokyo National Museum's exhibit on the new year, it is well-advised to dream of Mt Fuji, eagles, or eggplants early in the year of the boar. Huh? They didn't really explain this assertion, but indeed, their exhibit contained imagery such as eggplants glazed on pottery, kimonos with embroidered eagles, and of course the ubiquitous Mt. Fuji on everything from painted scrolls to incences holders. None of these works spurred any dreams that I can recall, so we'll have to settle for cooking eggplant for dinner tonight.

With the exception of this notable ad campaign, we haven't seen much else around town invoking the odd triad. But we certainly do see an awful lot of boars. The Japanese have clearly adopted the Chinese zodiac symbols with gusto, despite the fact that it will remain the year of the dog in China until February 2nd. Boars have been conscripted into selling all manner of gadgets and trinkets -- as well as more dubious products like cosmetics and insurance. It's remarkable how cute you can make a wild boar cartoon character!

January 12, 2007

Random snippets from a day in Japan.

Purifying the taxis

Today seemed filled with small, only-in-Japan experiences that I thought I'd share...

According to our local newspaper, college entrance exams are coming up soon. You know what that means, right? Yes! It's time to purify the taxis. Seriously, the photo above ran in our local newspaper with a caption that indicates that the taxis will take examinees to their exam locations. The cherry blossoms on the side represent a fruitful spring, which is when students begin their new year at University. A shinto priest purifies the driver and taxi.

L and I will go to a sumo match this weekend. I had to buy tickets, so I got them at... 7-11. You can do just about anything at convenience stores around here -- we pay our bills there, send faxes, buy fresh sushi, and even get sumo tickets.

Walking to the convenience store, I passed by a restaurant with fresh fish skeletons hanging on the door. The head and tail were fully intact, connected by a perfectly preserved series set of ribs. The whole package reminded me of a Garfield cartoon. I considered photographing it, but I figured a thousand words were safer than the picture for this one...

I went to the Earthquake Research Institute's weekly seminar, where each week they invite a scientist from somewhere in Japan to give a scientific talk on his (or her, but it's never a her in Japan) scientific research. The seminars are in Japanese, but I attend anyways because I want to participate in department events. Most of the graphs have axes labeled in English, and I know a few words in Japanese, so I can usually learn a few things about the science. And usually I pick up a few new Japanese words as well. Today, however, I noticed some Japanese words that have been adopted from English. This is not uncommon -- a huge number of Japanese words are simply their English equivalent pronounced with a Japanese accent like "haado dribu" (hard drive), "hanbaaga" (hamburger), etc. Today, I realized that the Japanese always used "sienzu" (science), and "risonabaru" (reasonable). My dictionary lists actual Japanese words for both of these, but there is something about the connotations of their English form that is poorly represented in Japanese.

I ended the day by watching a bit of Japanese TV (L is still at work). First was a game show where contestants were shown works of art depicting Mt. Fuji. They had to guess the correct vantage point where the artist was sitting, using flags placed on a miniature topographic model of the mountain.

The game show ended and the Friday night movie began. Tonight was, "Shall we Dance?" -- with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. Fans of dance movies will recall that this movie was originally a Japanese movie with a Japanese cast, made a few years back. L and I saw it back when we were dating and taking ballroom dance lessons every week in Berkeley. Watching this version on TV, I was an American in Japan watching an American remake of a Japanese movie, dubbed over with Japanese.

January 7, 2007

Our trip to Kyoto

It's a little out of order chronologically, but we wanted to report on our recent trip to Kyoto that spanned Christmas time. It was our first chance to travel within Japan since our arrival, and we had a great time! We've put the highlights on this page, but there is more information in our photo album from the trip.

Temple view Gilded temple

Kyoto is famous for its dozens of temples and shrines. They are scattered about the base of the hills and even nestled within the modern city itself. We went to too many to keep track of, but we enjoyed appreciating the many differences between each one. The pictures above show two extremes -- a temple literally gilded in gold perched beside a massive pond compared with a smaller building nestled in a cozy landscape (these are called the Gold and Silver pavilions, respectively).

Many temples and shrines have gardens that are pleasant to walk through, and gardens come in all different forms from natural forest settings to the delicately landscaped Zen gardens. Some are renown for their statues, some for paintings, and some for the architecture of their buildings. There is exquisite variety.

Thousands of statues Dragon painting

Kyoto became Japan's capital over 1200 years ago, so they have accumulated many "national treasures" (an official designation given to about 1000 artifacts and structures around the country, of which about 250 are in Kyoto). Buddhist statues are amazing, though many are in settings where photos are prohibited. For example, we took the picture on the left of a postcard we bought. It was an amazing site with 1001 of these carved images of kannon, a goddess of mercy. Like the famous Chinese warriors that my parents recently visited, each of these statues has a slightly different face. These statues are perhaps more remarkable because each one has 40 arms (we counted) and every one of them holds a slightly different object!

Also remarkable were the painted sliding screens in temples and palaces. Some 800 year old paintings still had bright and vivid colors, despite the fact that they are placed on doors that have been used for generations. While not as colorful as some, we just loved the expression on this dragon's face from the image on the right.

Ringing the big bell Sutra brush strokes

We tried to immerse ourselves into the complete experience. L got to ring this huge bell in one temple, and we took turns copying a section of sutra to practice our Japanese calligraphy.

Kyoto2 - 109 Maiko pair

There were so many different representations of beauty in Kyoto. Some natural, and some uniquely Japanese. We experienced several of Japan's most famous Zen gardens -- composed of only moss, rock, and gravel arranged in a way to both represent an object or setting (like waves in front of Mt. Fuji) or evoke feelings about abstract concepts like the flow of time. They were all pretty small and were only designed to be viewed from the outside (unlike some of the other Japanese landscaped gardens we experienced). A different form of beauty, but still very structured, is the world of the geisha. We went on a fascinating tour with a Canadian that is married to a former geisha. He took us to some interesting spots and dismissed many of the myths about the geisha world depicted in movies like the recent, "Memoirs of a Geisha." We were lucky enough to capture the shot on the right of the two geisha trainees walking to work in the evening.

Winter wonderland Winter Wonderland 2

One morning, we woke up to a very special treat -- a fresh dusting of snow (admittedly, it didn't seem like a treat when we first stepped out into the blizzard-like conditions). Walking around the gardens of Heian shrine was a complete winter wonderland!

Forest torii hike Tori road

One of our favorite walks was around Fushimi-Inari shrine. It has literally ten thousand of these bright orange gates (torii) marking pathways up and down the hillside. Some places, the gates are so closely spaced that it feels more like a tunnel (right photo) than a mountain nature experience. This is one of the most unique hikes we've done. Despite the apparently obvious path, we did manage to get lost! At a spot where the torii were sparse, we asked a local woman which way to the train station and she apparently directed us to the "shortcut" that the locals use. Thankfully, she was walking home that way and caught up with us enough to point us in the right direction. We had a nice conversation with her in Japanese during the twenty minute walk (though we only understood about 2 minutes worth).

Nara deer Pagoda in the distance

Kyoto was actually the "new" capital, replacing nearby Nara in 794. Nara was the first capital of a united Japan, but was only capital for about 80 years. Apparently the government had become so corrupted that the emperor decided that the only solution was to move the capital entirely. One of our guidebooks indicates the problem was Buddhist monks 'dabbling' too much in politics. However another source reveals that in fact a monk seduced the empress, nearly usurping the throne. Kyoto and Nara gave way to the current capital, Tokyo, in 1868. The official handover of power happened in Nijo castle, that we also visited.

Wanting to make sure we have properly covered all three of Japan's historical capitals, we took two days to head up to Nara. Most notable was the main park with hundreds of semi-wild deer. They intermingle with tourists who can buy a packet of "deer biscuits," allowing the deer to eat right out of their hands. Seems like a disaster waiting to happen, so we just enjoyed watching them from a safe distance, like in the picture above left..

Kyoto2 - 259 Kyoto2 - 328

Nara and Kyoto are home to many of Japan's superlatives -- oldest capital, largest bell, largest temple gate, longest wooden building, etc. The photos above show some of the more impressive ones -- on the left is Japan's oldest pagoda, located next to the world's oldest wooden structure (nearly 1300 years old). Pagodas are always closed off to lay people, but this one allowed you to at least look inside. There were four small sets of statues depicting Buddha or Buddhist monks in different poses. The most interesting was a statue of Buddha at the moment he reaches enlightenment and enters paradise. The golden statue was surrounded by a group of weary onlookers. For the oldest wooden structure, we were lucky enough to actually walk through it and it is beautifully designed with a mural depicting Buddha's paradise, including this very Indian-looking kannon.

Buddhism came from India to China and then to Japan, where the Japanese quickly embraced it. The photo on the right shows Japan's largest Buddha statue, housed in Japan's largest wooden building. It's truly towering. What makes it more amazing is to learn that it was cast nearly 1300 years ago (it would take some serious cranes to build it today). Further, the Japanese government decided to invest in this colossal project a mere 100 years or so after Buddhism was first introduced into Japan!

Overall, we had a fantastic journey to Kyoto, with many new experiences and a great introduction to Japan's long history and fascinating culture.

Want to see more? Look through our complete photo gallery from Kyoto.

January 2, 2007

An Imperial Visit

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is open just two days a year, with the Emperor appearing in public on only one day during the New Years celebration on January 2. We went through a light security check and followed the droves along a series of wide paths to a broad plaza in front of a modern building on the palace grounds. We waited there for about 20 minutes. Even though they gave us small paper flags when we came in, everyone kept the flags down and furled throughout this period. Most people waited silently or spoke in whispers to one another, except a nearby crowd of Americans who could be heard boisterously chatting about how their tallest friend must be blocking everyone else's view.

The Emperor and his family appeared in the bullet-proof window right on schedule at 11:50 am. The crowd immediately started vigorously waving their flags. A small group started chanting something such that we were concerned that they might be a protest trying to disrupt things, but that did not appear to be the case. There were a few loud happy cheers, but mostly it was just vigorous flag waving. The Emperor spoke for about a paragraph, they waved some more, and then they disappeared after about 5 minutes.

New Years Festivals

The whole country shuts down business and goes to celebrate New Years with family. There are lots of small celebrations. We spotted these performances in different parts of the city. On the left is a group of taiko drummers outside a nearby department store (yes, the Japanese also shop like crazy on New Years -- think of the day after Thanksgiving in the US as a quiet morning at the mall). On the right are lion dancers at the Tokyo National Museum, where we spent our day after the Imperial Palace. The lion dancers were not as big or flashy as the versions we've seen on TV at Chinese New Year. But, it was great fun watching the beasts kiss the heads of young children in the crowd. L had her head "kissed" by the lion, though we weren't fast enough to capture it on film.

January 1, 2007

Happy New Year!

Well, it wasn't quite Times Square, but it sure was a big crowd! In Japan, it's tradition to visit a shrine to welcome in the New Year. The shrine we went to in Tokyo has over a million people come through!

To participate with the locals, we geared up for the cold (it's just above freezing here in Tokyo at nights) and headed out around 9. There were food stalls on the shines' garden grounds selling festival cuisine of fried noodles, soups, grilled meats, and other treats. We had a quick dinner and then went to wait in line until midnight. We waited among hordes of mostly younger people (picture on the left). While there were thousands of people assembling, it was surprisingly orderly. Even though you can even get beer from vending machines, I didn't see any alcohol around. Just groups of people standing trying to pass the time in the cold until midnight.

A few minutes before midnight, a song started over the loudspeaker, and everyone joined in to the tune. At the stroke of midnight, the shrine's massive drum began to beat. The crowd was surprisingly subdued -- there was no formal countdown and few cheers, except from a few isolated groups (probably the scattered Americans in the crowd). Many faces were staring at webpages on their cell-phones -- maybe viewing the Japanese Dick Clark announce the start of 2007.

Once the new year had been signalled, it was time to move the line forward for people to pay their respects at the shrine. Throughout the night, a policeman near us had held up a big sign with red writing and a fun cartoon character that said "please wait a moment" (in Japanese), but now he turned it around to the green side which read, "please move slowly." Eventually, we got to where we could see the front of the shrine and people began throwing coins, some from quite a distance. Some people in the front definitely got hit! The photo on the right shows how close we got to the shrine's front (not very) and how much room they have to receive money (lots).