Monday, December 21, 2009

Wendy's Gives Up on Japan

America's No. 3 burger chain has ended it's 29-year presence in Japan. Zensho Co. Ltd., which operates the restaurants in Japan, will end it's agreement with Wendy's/Arby's Group Inc. and close its 71 locations by the end of the month. I couldn't find the exact reason for the decision, but in an AP article(here), a Zensho spokesman gave a canned response to reporters. "[We] will focus our resources on beef bowl restaurants and others." An article in Newsweek points out that Japan is going through a bit of a food crisis: it imports 60% of its yearly caloric intake, 90% of its corn comes from the United States, and 70% of its farmers are over 60 years of age. Those are all interesting figures, but Japan would do well to consider that 100% of Wendy's hamburgers are square and juicy. Surely that could solve a problem or two.

In Ashikaga, the smallish city where I lived, McDonald's and KFC were the only American fast food places available. My frequent trips to Tokyo were my only chance to see other familiar fast-food chains from home. I ate at the restaurant near Ebisu station lots of times on the way to and from parties and whatnot. It's the only place in the whole country I knew of where I could eat chili, so on a cold day that was the place to be. Add in frosties and those spicy chicken sandwiches, and you had gold. Gold! Why does Japan hate deliciousness?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice, has popped up in a couple of my favorite places to get news. His life story appeals to me as being both very entertaining and inspirational. He picked up and moved to Japan, living for three years in a Buddhist temple, then working as an English teacher and part time as a Swedish massage therapist, then eventually becoming a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, credited as having the largest circulation in the world. At Yomiuri he worked as a crime reporter and his book reveals the depth of his knowledge on the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia.

His little interview on the Daily Show was my introduction to his work. The interview is a bit offbeat and has a few amusing bits. My favorite quote is "[Liver Damage] is the number one cause of death for yakuza.... other than being shot or beheaded."

One of my favorite newsy podcasts is NPR's Planet Money. Here Adelstein "talks about how the business of the yakuza groups has changed over time and how tighter government restrictions have pushed the Japanese mob into more "traditional" investments." You can listen to or download the podcast here. My favorite part of this one is the story of how the Yakuza hired actors to pose as Japanese bank execs in order to trick Lehman Brothers into loaning a front company $300 million. It's pretty golden. Fresh Air has another longer program with him as well as an excerpt from his book here.

And finally, Jake edits the blog A notable recent post here is entitled "Eating sushi off a naked girl: yay or yuck?"

I'll be putting his book on my Christmas list.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Greek Cookies at St. Anthony's

Last Saturday, the 5th of December, was the annual holiday sale in the basement at St. Anthony's Hellenic Orthodox Church. It's a small building but on this one day a year it is packed with delicious. For lunch you can choose from among steaming gyros, poorboys, and spinach pies. The reason I love this place enough to return every year, though, is the cookies. Greek cookies are freaking awesome.

A volunteer stood behind the table and packed a box full of all the unpronounceable honey and nut laden treats I over-indulgently pointed at.

I should have someone read the cookies' names to me next time. I've eaten enough of these that at this point we really should be introduced.

By the time I'd gotten them home the honey from the baklava and one or two others had pooled in the bottom of the box. I couldn't hold that against them.

The other reason I like visiting St. Anthony's is that it is a cozy, good looking little church. I'm not at all familiar with the orthodox tradition so the patriarchs and the pictures and paintings are all interesting to admire. Everything is written in Greek, and there are a couple of giant golden chandeliers with pictures of saints 'n friends on them.

This little festival only happens once a year as far as I know so if you've missed it you're SOL and most likely Greek cookie-less until 2010. If you'd like to attend a service though, I'm sure St. Anthony and the gang would be happy to see you.

Here's the program and-

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-here's their location.

I think my work here is done.

Friday, December 04, 2009


"Continuously inhabited for more than 700 years, Ollantaytambo is one of the few settlements that 16th-century Spanish conquistadors had trouble sacking, thanks to its magnificently preserved Incan fortress", writes Paul Brady in an article on the New York Times website(here).

Once out in the Ollaytantambo station we started walking. There were plenty of offers of taxis to be sure, but after sitting for so long I think we both wanted a little exercise.

The empty taxis would always slow down or honk their horns at us to drum up business. I laughed when I saw the dreaded tuk tuk style taxis that are popular in Thailand. I hated these especially because they never have meters, making the fare open to interpretation.

Ice cream apparently makes people in Peru very happy.

Many of the gift shops in the area were these awesome mud hut looking structures. It was exciting to see a bit of Peru that's more rural.

Here I finally got a picture of this little object. I'd been seeing these little bulls and crosses all over the country. Usually they were on the tops of buildings. I couldn't find much about them online, but it's a mix of Catholic and indigenous religion apparently. People pour wine in the little holes as an offering.

This man was maybe the only beggar I gave money to in the whole country. I'm against it in principle, but this guy was blind, playing an instrument, and had a little sign in English. I couldn't resist.

When I saw what we were in town for, I may have said some bad words. My legs were still jell-o from a ton of ruins walking the day before and this place had stone stairs galore. The view of the town below and the ruins on the neighboring mountains was worth it though.

In the US we would probably deck this thing with handrails. If someone slipped on the top step they'd pretty much be hamburger by the time they got to the bottom. You're welcome for that little image.

At least when walking in a real desert, there aren't any stairs.

The ruins.

This was one of those moments. I was walking and doing my tourist thing when all of the sudden the world shows me a few seconds of perfection. It feels a bit like walking into a postcard. There's a bright sun overhead and this cactus on a dusty dry Peruvian cliffside. A bird of prey with wings outstretched was flying so low and directly overhead that I could see its shadow wingspan moving around on the ground in front of me. A prefect little moment.

Once back on the ground, I met these people. I get the feeling that this little group was a bit overdressed in order to attract tourists, but otherwise they were the real deal. Everyone was speaking so fast that I couldn't tell the difference, but Angelica said that one of the little girls was translating Angelica's Spanish into Quechua for the others. I gave the few little coins I had to the woman on the left, sort of assuming she would share the wealth, but one of the little girls later motioned for money so pathetically that I wished I had distributed the money myself.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ashikagans in Springfield

Some time ago I was bragging about one of my students winning a speech contest in Ashikaga. Well the prize for that contest was a free trip to Springfield and a bit of Chicago to see the sights. It was very cool to see both sides of the circle, plus I got to see my student and several other people I know from Japan. It was fun to speak some Japanese after what feels like a long time as well.

I actually saw everyone on three different days. There was an informal little reception at Floyd's, a downtown bar, and there was a fancy(and long) gala at the Illinois State Library.

This was at the third little event I attended held inside the Old State Capitol. There were again lots of speeches, including remarks from Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin, Ashikaga Mayor Minoru Omamiuda(seen here singing some Elvis at an earlier welcome party in Japan), and Illinois State Senator Larry Bomke. Each one of the winning students then stood up at the podium and recited the Gettysburg Address. While this is not the place where Lincoln gave his famous speech, this is where he gave his "House Divided" speech that is also very well known.

Gettysburg Speech Dream Team

We all had Subway at the nearby but not-yet-open National Museum of Surveying(website). While they didn't have a ton of exhibits in place yet, they did have something pretty awesome called Science On a Sphere(website). It was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and it's pretty much a big ball with several projectors playing on it to create the illusion of an animated sphere. It's a pretty cool way to see global weather patterns, earthquakes, and even sea turtle migrations take place on a round earth.

I took a couple of little videos of the thing in action. The whole setup was controlled with a Wiimote, which just made it that much snappier.

The whole thing made it into the State Journal-Register here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Take Me Down to Ollantaytambo

Before I went to Peru, I knew next to nothing about Pre-Columbian civilizations. I don't think I realized how much of the ruins still stand, and I certainly didn't know that the language of the Inca, Quechua, was still spoken. Now that I have been exposed to these things a bit more, I find them extremely interesting. I'd say that is a large impediment to the speed of my posts on this blog. I start to research a place I went, get sidetracked into Google Books reading about battles between the Inca and the Spanish, then look at the clock an hour later and realize I haven't written anything! I am very grateful to live in the age of the internet. So much awesome information is available at a whim. Anyway, onward!

Speaking of information, useful or otherwise, I read in a travel guide that Huttese, spoken by the big fat Huts in the Star Wars movies, is largely based on Quechua. I'm sure the Peruvians think that's swell. It's probably best that I didn't learn that until I left the country.

After a very eventful day on the PeruRail train and then exploring the wonders of Machu Picchu, we had a much needed sleep. This next day might have been even longer than the one before it.

While on our way to check out of the hotel Angelica noticed this parrot chilling out in an open area at the center of the building. Parrots in the US are always pets or jailed in zoos, so it was cool to see such a nice bird wild.

We got to the train station a bit early, so there was a bit of time for us to explore. We played a bit more of my favorite game: White guy picka souvenir from a distance and latin girlfriend buya souvenir at much lower thana white guy price while white guy isa hiding. I'm still working on the name but you get the idea. Here are a couple of little things that I bought in Peru.

A lovely Inca Kola t-shirt. The guy at the airport metal detector referred to me as Inca Kola, so Angelica and I thought that was pretty funny. I might need a new hat. This one has been just about adventured to death.

This might turn out to be one of those things that looked super cool in Peru but back at my house it looks stupid. I'm not sure what I am going to do with this and the other one I bought. It's made from alpaca fur, though, which is kinda interesting.

Just next to the fancy tourist train station was the line for the local train.

The train ride back was much less fancy than the previous one. We got these little lunch boxes instead of the fancy breakfast with silverware from before. I opted for the coca tea this time. Everyone said it was supposed to help with altitude sickness.

At one stop of the train I saw this old woman out the window. Her motions to the passengers were hilarious.

First was "oh I'm surprised to see you" from the woman standing right next to the train tracks to the people on a train that likely comes by the same time every day.

Then it was "oh I'm too embarrassed to have pictures taken of me".

Next was "well I'd be a little less embarrassed if you all put coins into this hat I happen to have here with me".

And finally "wow, those coins really did the trick. my shyness is cured!"

The train was pretty calm until he showed up. I didn't catch his name, but he was like a dancing mix between a clown and a terrorist. Obviously I took some video of the performance.

Sorry about the letterbox thing going on here. The iPhone's video and YouTube aren't the best of friends.

In the video there's a man just to the right of me looking at his laptop and roundly ignoring the odd performance. Well, he was watching several episodes of himself on his travel show. It was none other than...

Oliver Steeds! He's best known for his work on the Travel Channel's Mark & Olly: Living with the Tribes.

Well I was worried Mr. Steeds might have not welcomed an intrusion to his intent watching of himself, but he seemed pleasantly surprised when we asked him for a picture. Honestly I wouldn't have even known who he was if he hadn't been watching his own show, so maybe we're even.

Here's Olly and his co-host being forced to adopt a baby monkey after the tribe eats its mother. I laughed and laughed. (Not really. I'm a good person).

Eventually the train stopped and we had to say goodbye to our new famous friends. But we didn't just ride back to where we came from. That's for quitters. Our train ride ended in the Peruvian town and Inca ruin site of Ollantaytambo (yeah, it's a long name, but recall Bangkok's name in Thai?). The city is notable for being a temporary capital for the Inca resistance during Spanish conquest. Very cool. More on the city later!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

This Year's Halloween Costume

I didn't have too many ideas on what I wanted to be for Halloween this year. After the resounding successes of my Indiana Jones and beetle costumes(hehe) the last two Halloweens I spent in Japan, what could possibly compare? Angelica and I did a bit of Halloween shopping at a few of the party stores in town but everything felt really overpriced and we didn't see anything striking.

A trip to the local Meijer, though, was the jackpot. They had haunty festive stuff but because it was already so close to the big day, everything was 30% off! It was a rare procrastination-based victory. There were only a few lonely racks of stuff left, so that made choosing easy.

The both of us and a couple of my friends all went down to St. Louis for some haunted house and downtown festivities.

Seago was Shawn from Shawn of the Dead (I think he just wanted to get fake blood all over his work clothes), Brandon was a zombie cowboy, I was a Ghostbuster-

-and Angelica was a bumblebee. We had talked earlier about coordinating costumes, but the supermarket sale ruined that. She wanted me to be a flower to match her bee, and I wanted her to be Slimer. It didn't work out.

This costume was funny because the proton pack was inflatable, and part of it wouldn't inflate. I ended up having to repair it with electrical tape. Very classy. I loved the Ghostbusters growing up, and I had several of the action figures. My mom put those little orange flavored Ecto-Cooler juice boxes in my lunch until I was about 18. It was all a nice temporary return to the 80's for me.

Since I just bought my costume at a normal store I was worried there would be copies of me everywhere, but surprisingly that didn't happen. People were constantly giving me congratulatory "Who you gonna call?" or theme song greetings, so that was funny. I did see one other Ghostbuster while we were out, but he had made his costume. His backpack lit up and everything. Show off.

It was too dark in the haunted house for pictures and by the time I got downtown my phone was dying, so I don't have many good shots of other people. My favorite was a group of people going as characters from the Mariokart games. They had little boxes around their waists with wheels taped on, plus some balloons tied on. Then they ran around in circles in little races with each other. It was awesome. It was nice to see the amount of effort some people put into their outfits. Costume parties really are the best.

Next I'll get back to the end of my Peru pictures. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Preparations

Angelica is fun because she hasn't done a lot of Halloween stuff before, like make a jack o lantern or go to a haunted house. Plus, this is my first Halloween back from Japan, so we are doing some classic stuff that I haven't done in a while. It's been good times so far. We are planning on doing a haunted house tonight and then go to a costume party, so I will report on that later.

We did a bit of costume shopping, which is pretty much the funnest sort of shopping that I can imagine.

I'm happy that these Guy Fawkes costumes are still popular. Did you know that the word "guy" meaning "man" or "person" originates with Guy Fawkes?

The interesting little entry in The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories.

We put our pumpkin outside one little day before we wanted to carve it, and the next time we checked it had been chewed up by squirrels. Angelica drew a face so that we could cut out the parts with the little teeth marks.

I thought it came out pretty well.

Have a fun and safe Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lunch at Cozy Dog, Birthplace of the Corn Dog

A fun thing about being back in the US after such a long time is I feel like a bit of a tourist even in my own hometown. There are a few interesting local spots in town that I've never had a chance to check out, and thats why we decided to go to the Cozy Dog Drive In. This little Springfield restaurant claims to be "the home of the famous hot dog on a stick".

The story is in the true spirit of the American inventor. I might paraphrase the timeless story as "This guy saw this thing, and it sucked, so he made it better". You might want more details than that, though, so I humbly offer the tale as told by late founder Ed Waldmire, Jr. to his son Bob on January 30th, 1959.

In Muskogee, Oklahoma, I saw an unusual sandwich called “corn-dog.” This sandwich was a wiener baked in cornbread. The corn-dog was very good, but took too long to prepare. The problem was how to cover a hotdog with batter and cook it in a short time.

In the fall of 1941, I told this story to a fellow student at Knox College whose father was in the bakery business, and then gave it no further thought.

Five years later while in the Air Force stationed at Amarillo Airfield, I received a letter from my fellow student, Don Strand. To my surprise he had developed a mix that would stick on a weiner while being french-fried. He wondered if he could send some down that I could try in Amarillo. Having plenty of spare time, I said ‘yes.’

Using cocktail forks for sticks, the U.S.O kitchen in which to experiment, we made a very tasty hotdog on a stick, that we called a “crusty cur.” They became very popular both at the U.S.O. in town, and at the P.X. on the airfield. My friend continued to send mix and we continued to sell thousands of crusty curs until I was discharged – honorably – in the spring of 1946.

We decided to sell them that spring. My wife did not like the name “crusty curs.” Through trial and error and discarding dozens of names, we finally decided on the name “Cozy Dogs.”

Cozy Dogs were officially Launched at the Lake Springfield Beach House on June 16th, 1946.

This story and a bit of additional history and news is available on the Cozy Dog website here. Apparently Cozy Dog was also featured in National Geographic's Traveler magazine, but the magazine's website guards its treasures a bit too jealously for this lover of truth.

And here's the magical food people come here for. It's the only place I know of where you can get a good corn dog when the State Fair isn't in town.

I think this little eatery would be pretty cool even without its claims of corn dog genesis. The restaurant sits on Historic Route 66, the old-school patchwork of roads that led from Chicago to Los Angeles before the advent of the Interstate Highway System. It has lots of memorabilia everywhere that was interesting to look at while I waited for my food.

It's the only restaurant I can think of that has a library available to customers.

They have a few cases of souvenirs, mostly involving Route 66 and/or anthropomorphic hot dogs.

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If you want to be cool and experience some quality Midwestern culture, head to Cozy Dog Drive In and look for the sign with the giant embracing corn dog people.