Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Vacation GET! (冬休み)

Hi all,

I apologize for the recent lack of activity on the blog.  This post is just to say that I have now officially finished all my teaching duties for the year and will be on winter vacation until 1/12/2009 (Mon).

I will be travelling around Japan during this time, and will kick things off by leaving tomorrow night on a ferry bound for Kyushu.  While I'll likely be without web access during much of this time, I vow to return with loads of pictures and stories for many new updates.    

Here's wishing everyone happy holidays and a wonderful new year.

See you in 2009!


Friday, December 19, 2008

I guess this is the opposite of a hard-on.

Here's a blurry night picture of Christmas light covered trees in downtown Matsuyama. The holidays are upon us in Japan.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thanksgiving (感謝祭)

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Okay, I fully realize that Thanksgiving is now around two weeks old. You don't have to rub it in! However, as I pull myself back towards regularly scheduled blog updates - I took a hiatus to cram for the Japanese proficiency exam - I figured it was as good a place as any to begin.

Two weeks ago, Cara and I had a complete Thanksgiving dinner with Japanese guests. I will begin by saying that I cannot claim even 06% of the credit for the resulting feast; it was ALL a result of my friend slaving away at the stove (or should I say our apartment's dual gas burners).

I can only claim sole responsibility for the dramatically over-sized mountain of mashed potatoes present at the meal. Once I began peeling, I sort of fell into a trance and polished off the two bags of spuds in no time.

I figured that our Japanese guests, raised in a nation obsessed with fries, sweet potatoes, and potato salad, would gobble up heaping spoonfuls of my mash. In actuality, I had to take around half of it home. Sadly, mashed potatoes are my least favorite Thanksgiving food.

Ironically, but perhaps expected, the one Thanksgiving food that is near impossible to procure in Japan is turkey. Most Japanese people have never tasted turkey - I think it was a first for all the guests at our dinner (along with roasted pumpkin seeds).

The only turkeys I have seen in Japan are whole, frozen-solid birds that are imported annually from America or New Zealand. Since there is literally zero demand for turkey in Japan, Mitsukoshi (a super high-end department store chain) only stocks around five birds per year. Each frozen turkey costs well over $100 USD.

Lucky for us, our American friend Lindsay (who had just returned to Ehime Prefecture at the time) was able to bring some canned turkey from Costco in America for us. So, all of our guests got to sample authentic American turkey (albeit a strange canned variety that required draining and heavily resembled tuna).

In total, our dinner menu included the following: turkey, stuffing, cranberries, carrots, mashed potatoes, salad, biscuits, pumpkin pie, and apple cider (I'm probably forgetting some things).

The prep for the meal included literally biking a complete kitchen's worth of utensils and ingredients from our apartment complex to the medical school (only about 5-7 minutes away).

Sure Lance Armstrong can win the Tour de France seven consecutive times, but can he ride with a steaming hot cauldron of mashed potatoes in his basket while holding a tupper of simmering maple glazed carrots in his hand?

In the end, our dinner was very fun, very friendly, and very Japanese. I am pleased to know that the tryptophan induced post meal laze exists in Japan the same as it does in America.

Happy Holidays!


This picture looks as though it should be featured on either the cover of an amateur gourmet magazine or one of those shirts you design and print at the mall for Grandma.

Group shot featuring the remnants of our Thanksgiving feast. I actually had to leave right as dinner started to go teach a private lesson. Luckily, there was still enough of each dish left for me to sample when I returned an hour later.

Enjoying hot apple cider. Honest-to-goodness hot apple cider with rum in it! After biking around the suburb at midday and visiting every local liquor shop, I came to the realization that Japanese people primarily drink beer, sake, and whiskey. It took four shops before I found this "imported" bottle.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Häagen-Dazs in Japan has the "Happy Cup." The Happy Cup is only available on the 7th, 17th, and 27th of each month. You can choose seven different mini scoops which are piled into a cup as shown. The result is actually quite a bit of ice cream (more than I wanted to eat anyways). My favorites were burnt caramel and Belgian chocolate. Too bad they ran out of the avocado flavor I requested!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cell Phone Pics (携帯写真)

I just figured out how to transfer the digital photos I took on my cellphone to my computer. With the exception of the Botchan Train, they were all taken during my trip to Tokyo this past July. A little late, but I thought some of them were cute and worth sharing.



Here is the "Botchan Ressha" or Botchan Train. This is an antique replica train from the days of Natsume Soseki's famous novel Botchan (circa 1906). This small commuter train runs along the tracks throughout the city, but the novelty factor means that it costs more to ride than the standard streetcar.

Hilarity in product form. Here are many different varieties of stick-on fake facial hair. Now I finally have a full-proof way to fill in those patches in my beard or give myself the handlebar mustache of my dreams. Thanks Propia!

Don't these weird face banks look like they stepped right out of Jim Henson's Creature Shop? After putting a coin in the bank's mouth, it chews up the money and swallows it whole! The whole thing looked quite lifelike.

A giant fugu or poisonous blow fish sign. I think I have a pretty good idea of what was on the menu at this restaurant.

Is this not the cutest picture EVER! This was taken in front of Ban-Dai headquarters in Asakusa. Since it was raining in Tokyo that day, Doraemon put on his trusty yellow raincoat to stay dry.

I always smile when I think of what it must be like for the worker whose job it is to dress up these characters. How does he / she describe her job to family and friends?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Made in Prison (刑務所製)

Yesterday I was biking to the grocery store for my weekly shopping expedition when a giant inflatable Anpanman bounce house caught my eye. I happily took the detour and ended up in the quaintest of local craft festivals.

After eating a sub-par set of takoyaki (octopus balls) from a food stand, I took to touring the small craft booths. One table displayed intricately carved wooden key chains featuring a cute owl character, another, freshly polished leather shoes. One particularly popular booth sold handmade towels.

A saleswoman caught me eying her hand-dyed blue neckties and began pointing out the intricacies of the designs. I tried on a fishing hat made of the same material, smiled, and checked myself out in the mirror for kicks. It was about at this time that my mind finally decided to decipher the kanji characters on the sign above the booth: "Tokushima Prefecture Correctional Facility."

I immediately ripped the hat off my head and threw it back on the table. All this stuff was made by cons!

Indeed, I had happily wandered into the annual To-on City Prisoner-Made Craft Festival. The cute owl key chains I spotted earlier were no doubt carved by hands that stole or strangled. The hat I put on my head could have been submerged in dye by someone spending their entire life incarcerated. All their anger and rage funneled into that soft cloth. And I had put it on my head!

I don't even want to begin to think about the towel booth!

Once I got over my initial shock, I was able to appreciate the true craftsmanship and attention to detail present in the furnishings. Who knew jailbirds could make such a comfy chair? Huge chests of drawers and entire dining room sets could be bought and delivered anywhere in Shikoku. Take that IKEA Japan!

Also present were large lacquered wooden carvings and some fantastic inmate paintings as well. These items were on display inside a nearby elementary school gymnasium. The gymnasium contained a small walk-in section that modeled a typical group prison room. The tatami floor and low wooden table in the cell made the room look strikingly similar to my apartment.

Pictures on the wall showed the meals prisoners receive - a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and a piece of fish. Sometimes they also got some pickles or a Yakult yogurt drink. The food actually looked pretty yummy.

My purchase from the craft festival was a plastic roll-up necktie case for a mere 10 Yen. I'd like to think that a murdered mobster's bloodstained necktie was once kept inside the very same case.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This is Mr. Contac, the friendly anthropomorphic spokespill who adorns the cover of my cold medicine box.  I paid the extra 150 Yen in order to buy the package with his smiling seal of approval.  Why?  In a sea of indecipherable cold-related kanji, his face just made me feel better.  

I figured if I was going to entrust healing my symptoms to a series of small plastic pouches filled with a mystery white granule reminiscent of cocaine, it might as well be endorsed by a likable character.  And who better to tell me what medication to take than a giant talking pill?  Heck, he's made of medicine!

I've since decided that all my future food, medical, and household item related purchases will be based solely on, A) the presence, and B) the overall likability of the accompanying mascot character.  

...After four days of swallowing this bitter-beyond-belief white powder with a sake glass full of water, my symptoms still persist.  Yet, I remain 100% faithful in the all-knowing Mr. Contac!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sometimes I need to be reminded why I love Japan. My throat has been scratchy all day and I can feel a cold coming on. In what other country could I walk across the street from my apartment, put one dollar into a vending machine and receive a piping hot can of azuki red bean soup?

And here is the can's contents. Unfortunately, pink and white mochi balls were not included.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cigarette Butt (タバコの吸い殻)

I was walking through one of the covered shopping arcades this past weekend in Matsuyama City when I came across a green booth dedicated to neighborhood cleanup projects and overall environmental awareness.

Before I knew it, one of the volunteers had handed me a plastic bag and salad bar variety pinchers and told me to go pick up some trash. I was all set to put on my best "Me no speaky the Japanesey" face and return the items to him out of sheer laziness, when a single word caught my attention: "prize."

You said what about a prize now?

As was explained to me, all I had to do was collect stray trash items off the ground as I walked my way through the arcade. Once I ended up in front of the large department store at the end of the corridor, I could trade in my bag of rubbish for a special prize.

This was all it took to set me off scavenging the ground like a stray dog. I chuckled to myself as I thought of those who littered. Fools! Their trash would literally become my treasure. However, as it turns out, a full day's worth of shoppers all scavenging for trash makes for one clean shopping street.

There was virtually no trash to be found. A toothpick, an eyelash...give me SOMETHING!!!


I suddenly became quite anxious. What would happen if I reached the end of the line and was unable to present the volunteer with even the smallest fragment of waste? I dreaded the disappointed look on the volunteer's face. I dreaded even more the thought that I might be denied my prize.

While waiting at a crosswalk I picked up a crinkled leaf and tucked it into my pocket for backup. I immediately began brainstorming ways to defend my find in Japanese should the volunteer balk at my submission. I got as far as, "Leaf = trash, you understand that punk?"...when...

JACKPOT!!! I spot an honest-to-goodness cigarette butt tucked behind a folding sign out front a drugstore. I had to ask the clerk restocking the outside display to step aside so I could reach the crown jewel with my plastic pinchers.

Knowing that there was no way I could be denied my prize, I marched up to the ending booth and proudly thrust my hands forward. My tiny cigarette butt was floating in a giant ocean of plastic bag, but I didn't care. I was beaming!

I made sure to enthusiastically point out my find to the volunteer. He seemed less than thrilled. If I had had one, I would have taken a picture of the cigarette butt out of my wallet and launched into the following conversation. "You know, last week my little cigarette butt here did the cutest damn thing..."

I asked the volunteer's advice as to which receptacle I should put it in. But, try as I might, I couldn't actually make the pinchers grasp the tiny butt, so I was unable to transfer it into the trash can when prompted. After fumbling for what seemed like a full minute, the volunteer grabbed my entire bag and unceremoniously threw it in the bin.

Where were the balloons? The band? The photo shoot with the mayor?

I was so shocked by the casual dismissal of my holy offering that I barely noticed the volunteer handing me my gift.

I tore open the small pouch.

My face contorted as I saw the prize. There in my hands was one additional plastic trash bag, folded neatly into a tiny square. The green lettering on the pouch encouraged me to use said bag around my neighborhood and keep the trash pickup spirit alive.

I made sure to throw away my gift in the proper bin before leaving.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Drumline (新居浜太鼓祭り)

If you will remember back to my earlier post entitled, "The Ballad of Bone and Kuma," I wrote about a man I affectionately named "Mr. Ki."

The word "Ki," like "Chi" in Chinese culture, can refer to one's spirit, essence, or being. Mr. Ki spoke very passionately about his own life force in relation to some of Ehime Prefecture's more dangerous autumn mikoshi festivals.

A "mikoshi" can best be described as a portable Shinto shrine. If you envision the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones, you'll be on the right track visually. These gold boxes are hoisted off the ground and carried around the city via two or four wooden poles and a whole lot of manpower!

As is custom in these parts, many autumn festivals feature "battling mikoshi." The basic idea is to have two groups of men carrying mikoshi run into each other at full speed as if jousting. In most cases, the only goal is to smash the shrines together until the opposing side's monument is completely destroyed. Think of it as a traditional Japanese-style demolition derby.

This past Saturday I attended the Taiko Festival in the neighboring city of Niihama. The Niihama Taiko Festival is a one of the largest and most famous "battling mikoshi" festivals in the prefecture.

The Taiko Festival is named such because each of the giant 17-foot-tall mikoshi that are carried through the city, have a taiko drum and a taiko drummer housed inside. Thus, the procession of shrine floats is punctuated with the booms of these traditional Japanese drums.

Once a good number of floats have congregated in a central area (in my case a local Shinto Shrine), it's time for the battling to begin. Since smashing these giant towers together would kill or maim an untold number of people (not to mention the poor soul drumming inside), the opposing group members merely attempt to violently throw each other from the float.

Speaking about this festival, Mr. Ki said his (and I quote) "heart is set ablaze" by the display of spirit. He also said that every year several people die during the festival. These unfortunate souls are usually spectators who fall and get trampled by the enormous crowd.

Having spent the better part of my last hour at the festival nose-to-neck in a solid mass of human flesh, I can attest to the very real possibility of getting injured if you are not careful with your footing.

"I'm 62 now," Mr. Ki said. "At this age I feel that I am ready to die. If I were to die during the festival...

(long pause)

...that would be a good death."


Let the festivities commence!

This shot gives a good idea of the sheer size of the taikodai. These floats can weigh over two and a half tons and reach over 17 feet in the air. And they're transported exclusively using manpower!

Packed in a mass of people while waiting to take pictures of the approaching taikodai floats.

Did I mention we were at a shrine?

The large floats can cost over $100,000 USD to build. I guess this neighborhood couldn't come up with the proper financing.

Each of the 50-some neighborhoods in Niihama City have their own taikodai float. Residents can be seen cheering on the members of their neighborhood as they pass by with the shrine.

Since this is a harvest festival, allow me to explain the symbolism. The red and white striped parachute-looking thing on top symbolizes the sun. The black cushions on each corner symbolize the clouds. Finally, the huge hanging tassels are meant to symbolize the falling rain.

The annual Niihama Taiko Festival is often nicknamed the "Man Festival" (otoko matsuri) due to the fact that males are the ones who exclusively lug around the floats and pick fights with opposing groups.

Here is what they use to carry the mikoshi around the city.

A closeup showing the detail found on one taikodai float. A shrine's panels always depict traditional Japanese buildings, locations, and folk legends. Also, golden dragons are a staple that adorn every float.

The entire side panel.

These guys have the best seats in the house! They ride atop the float pushing branches out of the way and waving to the crowd.

Several of the taikodai floats lined up at the shrine grounds. This area got absolutely flooded with spectators as the festival progressed.

Mikoshi Kombat! Round 1: FIGHT!!!

King of the Hill...uh, I mean...Mikoshi! All throughout the festival, one can hear the ringing sirens of ambulances. Emergency medical attention is as much for these young men battling it out atop the mikoshi as it is for the spectators, who stand a real chance of being trampled.

On display in a shopping arcade. I'll never look at mikoshi the same way again...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Here is a video I took on my digital camera of the blue and orange shrine groups battling it out. Watching the young guys fall off the mikoshi left and right, I couldn't help but stand amazed that more people didn't end up in the hospital.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Through The Looking Glass (直島)

One hour off the coast of Takamatsu by ferry lies the island of Naoshima, one of the strangest and most wonderful places I have visited in all of Japan.

Naoshima is an island dedicated to the appreciation of modern art. There are large and small art galleries and museums scattered along the many windy island roads. The atmosphere certainly didn't feel like Japan. Come to think of it, it didn't much feel like any place I have visited before.

In addition to the formal galleries, Naoshima is home to a plethora of outdoor installation pieces. Some are in plain view, others are hidden away in secluded clearings. Walking along a seemingly normal beach only to come face-to-face with a giant yellow pumpkin is a common occurrence here.

The three museums I visited while on the island were the Benesse House Museum of modern art, the Chichu Art Museum, and the Art House Project.

The Benesse House Museum was everything one would expect from a modern art museum. Pieces there utilized country license plates, neon lights, charcoal, and sticks. Any further description of the art from me will likely result in complete and utter unintelligibility.

Of the three I visited, "Chichu" was my least favorite gallery due to the overly pompous staff members and the fact that I had to take off my shoes three times while going into the different exhibition rooms. The stars of the show were three Monet paintings displayed in a giant solid white room illuminated only by natural sunlight. While I wasn't a fan Chichu's sophisticated museum experience, I must concede that the Monet room was quite stunning.

Finally the "Art House Project" was a series of traditional Japanese wooden houses (called kadoya or machiya) outfitted with lights and sculptures, effectively turning them into giant walk-in art pieces. I found this gallery (if you can call it that) to be the most interesting of the bunch.

As if trying to describe Narnia, Hogwarts, or Wonderland after the fact, I find that words fail to convey the energy and vividness behind what I saw and experienced. Take a look at the pictures below, perhaps they will do a better job.

If you ever find yourself in Takamatsu, a daytrip to Naoshima is a MUST. It is quite simply a place unlike any other you will visit.


If you read the Japanese from right to left, you'll understand where I'm headed...AM-IHS-O-AN

A shot of the ferryboat I rode from Takamatsu Port to Naoshima Island. The ride took exactly one hour each way.

This is Onigashima (Demon Island) from the Japanese folktale Momotaro the "Peach Boy." It is named this and marketed as an attraction due to its many caves and caverns. Along with Naoshima and Shodoshima, it is one of the three tourist islands off the coast of Takamatsu City in the Seto Inland Sea.

The scenic views around Naoshima are almost works of art in themselves.

The beach. It was an absolutely gorgeous day during my trip - You couldn't ask for nicer weather.

A smaller island I noticed. With some sort of rock path leading up to it?

You could tilt these squares into any orientation you liked. This placement represents my complete artistic vision. I'm worried that the deep symbolism of my work may be a bit too obtuse for casual blog readers.

As far as I could surmise, this was in fact some sort of giant, holey chair.

I wasn't entirely sure whether this was an art piece or not. Still made for a pretty picture though.

This was an outdoor piece using stones as the art material of choice.

This sign welcomes you to the Benesse House Museum of modern art. There were some pretty neat installation pieces inside, but I think that me trying to describe the modern art for you will be an exercise in futility.

And here is a shot of the museum building itself. Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed inside any of the galleries I visited.

Man reading gibberish newspaper with dog.

Elephant pot.

Cat pot (with plant).

Snake chair.

Cat tower.

Camel pot.