Friday, May 30, 2008

5/31/08 Yatsuhashi: The Tasty Kyoto Treat

A Japanese custom that I very much enjoy is one involving gift giving. When someone goes on vacation, it is customary for them to bring something small back for everyone in their office. It is partly just to be nice, but I think a big reason for it is to apologize for abandoning your coworkers. They are pretty hardcore about "the group", and going on a vacation with your family doesn't benefit "the group" much at all.

So, with that in mind, one of the English teachers at my school recently gave me a box of yatsuhashi upon returning from a trip to Kyoto. If you recall, its a bit of sweet bean paste wrapped in a dough made of rice and often flavored with cinnamon. I mentioned the little confection in an earlier post but didn't get any pictures. So, here are a few shots to give a better idea of what exactly the treat famous throughout Japan looks like.

Here is the box. This rather strung-out looking lady can be seen in Kyoto wherever souvenirs are sold. This company seems to have a large market share.

Cinnamon, strawberry, and green tea flavored yatsuhashi.

A delicious little bean paste taco. Mmmm!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

5/28/08 A Unique Party in Tokyo

Last Saturday was a lot of fun. Clarence, Tung, and I all went to a party in an area of Tokyo called Kichijoji.

The main draw of the party was an American singer/songwriter named Phillip Hunter. The funny thing was a few of our Japanese acquaintances. They were excited about the party as well, and they all seemed to have memorized the same little bio about him. The email I received mentioned that he had worked with "Michael Bolton(the "no-talent ass-clown"), Chaka Khan, Gloria Estefan, and Brian McKnight". So a few of our friends would parrot the list of people he had worked with over and over whenever prompted. At least one admitted that they didn't actually know any of the artists on the list. Funny guys.

The party was on the third floor of a little place called Koki's House. Well, Koki's got a decent house for himself. This was a pay at the door style affair, with an open bar (with a limited menu) and a buffet style setup with light dinner foods. Phillip was entertaining, and was very approachable. He sang several songs, and even passed the mic to us a few times(we were the only non-Japanese people in the room). As far as I'm concerned, I was the back up for the back up singer for Chaka Khan. I'm gonna get some business cards printed up shortly.

We were also graced with the presence of a special guest, Freddie Mercury. He ran in out of nowhere and started singing like a madman. Only did I later realize that this was our Japanese friend, and that Freddie Mercury has been dead for over a decade. Boy, was I embarrassed!

Good times with Phillip.

Friday, May 23, 2008

5/25/08 Tokyo Tower

I met a friend of mine in Tokyo last Sunday. We had a bit of unoccupied time on our hands so we resorted to some touristy stuff. The only place we could think of that neither of us had seen was Tokyo Tower.

OK, so I have seen the tower quite a few times, from various distances. At 333m in height, its pretty hard to miss. It is the tallest artificial structure in Japan. What I hadn't done, though, was take the touristy journey up inside the tower.

The walk to the tower revealed these little guys. There was a small shop nearby where one could buy a pinwheel for the child-like statues. Haven't seen anything like this before.

A monkey on stilts struggles to succeed in the face of self doubt at Tokyo Tower.

It was a pretty straightforward affair. Every tower visit is the same, right? Buy a ticket, wait in line, get smooshed into an elevator, see a view of varying beauty, visit the gift shop, the end. The view was pretty nice, and its always fun to check the little maps that point out what everything is. The National Diet Building(where Japan's legislature is found) has even made it onto my "To-Tour" list, as it really stands out... nice architecture at work.

A view of Tokyo from the Tower. Can you find the Diet Building?

There was a bit of a sheist in play, though. There are actually two observatories. After paying 8 dollars for an elevator ride to the observatory, we realized that we weren't even halfway up the tower. The much higher "Special Observatory" costs an additional 6 dollars. No thanks to that.

A spider web of metal.

In a practice more Japanese than sumo, some awful little tower characters were spawned to sell souvenirs. I can think of a couple of things that these creatures resemble, but none of them are repeatable in polite company. There was a little tower person at Kyoto Tower, too, remember?

The brochure was pretty amusing as well. The tower bears a striking resemblance to the Eiffel Tower, right? Minus the bright orange(international orange, the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge and NASA astronauts' pressure suits) and white stripes, of course. Well, the literature didn't let that point go unnoticed. Tokyo Tower is taller and "is much lighter than the Eiffel Tower... a result of remarkable advances in steel manufacturing and construction technology". Yeah, a hundred years usually brings a change or two. Eat it, France!


I'd like to share with you a picture of the animal that I found lurking in my kitchen sink today. I can think of few things more motivating: keep my apartment clean or beasts will crawl from hell to punish me.

I killed this thing so good...

Monday, May 19, 2008

5/19/08 Hiking Trip

Ashikaga is surrounded by mountains. I have a nice view of them from the window across from my desk at school. They are big and green from the abundance of trees, giving me a nice reassurance that somewhere under all the city pavement that nature is still doing fine.

I am from pancake flat Illinois, where the only reason that you can't see from one end of the state to the other is all the soybean dust in the air. I enjoyed gazing at the large formations, but they seemed so large as to be unsurmountable. If houses and roads can't make their way up these giants, what chance did I have?

Enter my Ashikaga friends. Mike in particular has become a critic of just about everything that costs money. In his ever expanding quest to have free fun, he stumbled on a pretty solid idea: mountain hiking. Its good exercise, its a good way to spend time together without spending cash, and its a pretty fun time.

The hike was a little over four miles with quite a few ups and downs. We soldiered our way up to a peak only to stomp back down the other side, and start over on the next one. The highest point we reached was around 1027 feet.

This shows a bit of what we actually walked. We entered the wooded area on the far side, then did a big horseshoe around Ashikaga Hospital, which is the big compound in the center. It was a pretty strenuous stroll. I took a water break or three.

When I wasn't gasping for air, I was posing heroically.

I was happy to spot a couple of interesting creatures that moved slow enough for me to get a picture. There were quite a few butterflies around as well, especially on the peaks of the mountains.

We spotted a couple of buses while we were still walking on street level. Mike was super excited about it. The buses were painted to look like neko no basu (literally, "cat bus") a character from one of Mike's most favorite geek cartoons. He might actually be a bigger nerd that I am.

The character from the show is a bit creepy. Giant cat body, with windows and a door to allow passengers access to its hollow interior. It has a caterpillar number of legs which it uses to run to its next destination. Super weird.

Monday, May 12, 2008

5/13/08 Google Fame

Just for the heck of it, I googled my own name to check out where I am on the charts. It seems that Amazing Adventures has finally completed its meteoric rise to the top! Strong competitors John Milito (the sports-related crossword puzzle book author) and John Milito (the head chef at a top New York restaurant) have finally been beaten to take the top spot. Sorry gents, it takes more than an excellent name to make it in this business.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ashikaga Flower Park

Early last week Clarence, Tung, Mike, and I all toured the Ashikaga Flower Park(a small English blurb from the city's website is here). It was my first time on the grounds since I visited Ashikaga in 2002. While none of us are particularly wild about flower viewing, this was a special occasion.

The most famous attraction at the park, and a top draw for the city of Ashikaga, are the blooming wisteria. Wisteria is a woody vine that features large hanging flowers. The plants located at this place in particular are the largest in Japan, at around 1,990 square meters in width (according to the wikipedia article on the plant here) and are over a hundred years old.

We went on Wednesday, skillfully avoiding the weekend traffic. Several of the teachers at my school mentioned how horrid the crowds are, but this particular sunny day was a nice leisurely experience.

Here are a few wisteria pictures.

This is a small potted version of the giant plants visible at the flower park. Several of them were brought into train stations around town to advertise. I saw brochures about the event as far as Tokyo(the train companies will promote just about anything that involves travel).

Here I am under one of the big wisteria plants. Tung thought that I was the most beautiful flower of them all.

A bee takes advantage of the large mass of flowers.

This shot gives a better idea of the size of the plants. A large trellis holds up what must be the considerable weight of the vines.

I'm not sure if this is the same kind of plant or not. There were several varieties of vines with hanging flowers.

Here are a few more pictures. While much less loved, quite a few other varieties of flowers were in bloom.


In other news, I finally got my travel plans sorted out. I will be back in the US from August 6-18. Preliminary plans include spending time with loved ones and visiting the Illinois State Fair.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

5/7/08 Birthday Present

My birthday was at the end of last month, and I received an interesting package in the mail. My parents sent me a box for my big day, which is very nice of them. Surely they stuffed it with all sorts of delightful things. Also included was some sort of sausage. So instead of getting any actual present, I got a packet from the (deep breath) Animal Quarantine Service Tokyo Sub Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (phew).

Its so official I can hardly stand it. The main letter has had no fewer than four rubber stamps applied to it. Several quotes from the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law are cited, and dates/serial numbers abound. So my choices are two: either send the whole lot of it back from whence it came or "to destroy only quarantinable articles by fire" after which the remaining goods will be forwarded to me. One of my friends quipped that the incineration of my meat products would probably be done by office party barbecue.

According to the enclosed little booklet, featuring happy cartoon people with a hoard of meats boarding a plane, I can ship meat from the US to Japan but I need a USDA inspection certificate. Bah.

Despite the hassle, I must congratulate the Japanese bureaucracy on a job well done in this particular case. A stamped and addressed envelope was provided along with a fairly simple check box sheet that I need to mail back to them. Just about all of the information provided is written in Japanese and comprehensible English, which can be a rarity with government dealings. Thumbs up. Now I just have to wait for my package, minus any delicious meats.