Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mountain Vegetables

Clarence, Nounours, Irish Matt and I recently had a nice lunch worth mentioning at a soba restaurant near Ashikaga Flower Park. Nounours had been to the place before, and he recommended the sansai tempura to accompany my soba. I hadn't had that before, so I was excited to try it out. Sansai literally means mountain vegetables and these were apparently gathered in the nearby mountains. I love the word because I can read its kanji characters on the menu. Anyway, they were then fried in a light crispy batter, with some sea salt available to sprinkle on top. It was awesome.

The most interesting bit was pretty much a flower. The big yellow guy in the corner there is called fukinoto. I asked the staff about it and they produced an edible plant field guide and pointed it out to me. It seemed like they were going mountain vegetable wandering themselves. Very cool.

The very unassuming exterior of the restaurant.

This doesn't relate to anything but I thought that it was amusing. With advertising like this, it's a wonder more Japanese people aren't overweight.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bike Repair Shop

I was recently forced to make a trip to the local bicycle shop. If you recall, I had a few problems with my ride soon after buying it, but things have been reasonably smooth with it since. It was last week's ride to Ashikaga Flower Park that finally pushed my poor bike over the edge. The road there was long, hilly, and uneven. I don't have much time left on my Japan contract, so I was hoping I could sneak by without putting anymore money into that thing.

When I finally rolled my bike into the shop near Ashikaga-shi Tobu Station, it had a flat tire, a rusty chain with a half broken link, and a dead light bulb. So much for avoiding additional expenses. The little old man at the shop seemed to have been waiting for me, because he was walking to greet me before I had even reached the door. The shop was tiny by US standards (as many things in Japan are). Maybe there was enough room for ten bicycles smashed side by side in that place. A short desk and maybe a shelf or two with spare parts filled what tiny space remained. The walls were completely glass, with Japanese style sliding doors. I could see a personal tatami room with a TV on through a partially open door on one wall. The building was two story and a window revealed more signs of residential life. No doubt this guy lives there as well. This was no part-time hardware store chump. He repaired my bike with speed and skill, and his tools looked about as old as he was. As he toiled, my eyes wandered to the gravel surrounding the shop. It was about 10% metal. Nuts and springs and screws from years of repairs were ground in with the pebbles.

Ever the tightwad, I asked him for a quote on what the repairs would cost before he touched the bike. He said something along the lines of "I won't know until I'm finished". In Thailand this is the part where I say "give me a quote or shove it", but this guy didn't look like he was out to swindle the foreigner, so I let it slide. Once he was finished, including oiling and wiping off the whole bike, he said "4,000 yen" but he said it in a funny question sort of way. As if it was a suggestion that I could choose to resist. I was very satisfied with the whole experience, though, so I was happy to pay. It was a slow moment from a simpler time.

My computer is currently being a jerk, so no pictures this time. Part of me is happy that it's not working. Lately I've been reading some Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and practicing my Spanish on a DS game. I even thought about doing the dishes once or twice. I should be watching Japanese TV instead of consuming large quantities of Lost, The Office, and The Wire as I have a habit of doing. Especially now that it is becoming warm outside, I should be enjoying nature and whatnot. I can check my email at school, so I guess the only big downside is that I can't use Skype to rain phone calls over the globe. Bummer.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Some Local Tourism

I've had a couple mini-adventures lately that deserve to be grouped together. The first was a visit to the Ashikaga Flower Park. This year we went in the evening because someone said the flowers would look cool lit up. I suppose they were right.

Here is one of the giant wisteria plants that everyone had come to the park to see.

I think this wall of flowers must be something new, as I don't remember seeing it last year. Last year's post on the park during the day time can be found here.

The gift shop, shown here testing the boundaries of the purple flower-related merchandise that people will actually buy.

The next little trip that I went on was to Tatebayashi, to see the koinobori. I mentioned it a few posts ago, explaining that it is a fish flag hoisted in the air meant to celebrate children in the household. Well Tatebayashi went a bit overboard with the concept-

-by covering a river in a zillion of them.

A very odd tourist attraction.

After several minutes of gazing at the fish in awe and confusion, Shaun, Mitsuo, his family and I all went for Mexican food. I was interested in having some more Mexican cuisine experiences in Japan, and this was a good one. The place is maybe the most authentic looking Mexican restaurant I've ever been to. The place was nestled in an old gas station which added to its rustic appeal.

There weren't any cheesy sombreros or piñatas hanging from the walls in this place. There were a few pieces of artwork here and there mixed in with the odd antiquated beer advertisement. I really like how rough the place felt.

The food felt much more authentic than is usually available in Japan (but I've never been to Mexico, so I'm not going to pretend to know what authentic is).

A new addition to the adventure crew is Mitsuo's baby, Saori. Here she is enamored with a hand wipe package, likely asking herself an important question: "How this would taste?"

Thursday, May 07, 2009

My First Movie Part 3: Filming

I found some new information about the movie I was an extra in. I'll share that in a bit. First I want to finish talking about the cool part of my experience on the set of Kanikosen: the filming. So when I left off, the 19 or so of us foreign guys had been given a tour of the set, eaten a light dinner, suited up with the lady from wardrobe, and heard a quick explanation of our role from the assistant director. Now it was just about time to rock.

The bit of the Kanikosen story that we worked at portraying was the part where the Japanese guys have an enlightening moment. I still need to read the book, but I believe the two crew members realize how crap their own conditions are when they meet the more prosperous Russians doing similar work. With this knowledge they return to their crab boat and stick it to the Man. So we have a good time, and they stand in the corner, dirty and muttering about union dues.

I could tell by the music and commotion that something was happening on our faux boat. I managed to get a vantage point and take a couple of pictures. One of the workers (understandably) told me to not take any pictures during actual filming, so all of my material is either from breaks or from rehearsals when the cameras weren't rolling.

Our scene called for two groups of dancers to entertain our group of Russians on a ship. I caught a few glimpses of the dancers' routines before it was my turn to be on camera.

There were two different groups of people practicing their routines. The first was a group of three Russian(?) girls dressed up like cold weather ballerinas. The second was a little Chinese(Japanese in reality) dance troupe. Their clothes were militaristic and so was their dance. They each had a letter on their hats that spelled out “China”. I thought that was a little weird. Oh and they had clown make up on. That was a bit weird too.

Both groups ran through their little dances so many times that I got tired of watching and went back to the blue tent to wait with the others.

When the time finally came for us to get started we all crowded onto the little boat deck and squeezed around two tables. I was a bit towards the end of the line to get on board, so I couldn't find a good place to stand. The staff saw that everything was a bit awkward so they moved three of us over to the side. When the cameramen started shooting I realized that I was stuck way out of the shot! Oh no! Luckily my angle improved in later takes.

So the first little scene was us enjoying food and drinks while watching these two sets of dancers. They didn't give us a lot of direction really. Perhaps they assumed that we knew more about having a foreign party than they did. There was food and drink on the table, and dealing with it seemed to be our biggest confusion. It felt like there were about three different people all giving us conflicting instructions. We were all pretty hungry due to our very light dinner, so once the word was given we ate a ton. Of course by then everything was cold.

Here are a couple of interviews with the guys.

Between takes the precious food was dutifully covered and moved out of harms way.

The real actors were either trying to stay in character, or trying to avoid making eye contact with any smelly foreigners.

Things got downright silly when the magician walked in. I don't know what his deal is, but he is definitely wearing a Louis Vuitton print shirt. By this point I figured it was best not to think of historical accuracy, lest I hurt myself.

Here the guys that can actually speak Russian are being directed. Look who's special.

Story boards are about the coolest thing ever.

The grand finale was the fake Russians, bouncing dancers, and dirty crab boat guys all prancing around in a circle. What a party.

Here the dance scene is being planned out a bit. I didn't do any dancing in the middle, but I give some pretty good square-dance knee slapping.

The younger of the two crab guys is Ryuhei Matsuda. I didn't realize it at the time, but he is a pretty big deal in Japan. Here he is in a sappy long underwear commercial.

So at the end of a Saturday 9 or 10 hour workday, contributing to a motion picture about communism and overcoming oppression, I had a taco salad and a small tote bag to show for my time. 甘い皮肉 is Japanese for sweet irony, in case anyone was wondering. Maybe I'll put the bag up on Ebay. Seriously though, this was an awesome, unique experience and I consider myself lucky to have been a part of it. Now all that's left to do is wait for the movie and see if I can spot my ugly mug.

Ok, well I promised some new stuff. Here's a trailer. Enjoy.

I have a very powerful suspicion that I am visible in this trailer, directly right of the crab guy on the right at 1:37, but I'm not 100% certain. According to a Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan release (here), the film will open nationwide in June.

I didn't get a chance to finish this little tale because I ran out of time before my trip to Hong Kong. If you missed the first two episodes of My First Movie, you can find them here.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Strange Flavors

Tonight I went with friends Zishan and Mitsuo to eat Indian food. We had a lively discussion in the car about food flavors that we like or dislike. Mitsuo thinks that root beer tastes like medicine and he hates it. This is an opinion I've heard several times in Japan, and the drink is nowhere to be seen in stores. He also said that mint ice cream reminds him of toothpaste. I love both of those things, so I thought it was amusing. My big complaint with Japanese sweets is that the vast majority are made of beans, rice, and/or tea. They are good, don't get me wrong, but I feel like there are only so many combinations of flavor that can be achieved with such a limited range of ingredients.

Foods deemed to be "foreign", then, are on the opposite side of the scale. They indulge in flavor experimentation that borders on madness. I gathered a few photos of interesting foods, and you can decide if they are a good idea.

Custard pudding flavored KitKat. These aren't bad.

Even the chocolate is yellow.

I was given this at school. It's a white grape flavored yogurt drink. Not bad, but I didn't ask for another.

Peking Duck flavored potato chips. These are surprisingly good. Kind of tangy.

At Mos Burger, kind of a Japanese McDonald's, they offer burgers with rice paddies for a bun. This one in particular was delicious.

Cheetos that taste like shumai, a Chinese pork dumpling. These taste really bad. I think they taste a lot like the real thing, but the marriage is not meant to be. I can't say I've had a bag of Cheetos over here that I enjoyed. For some reason they don't sell the usual cheese flavored kind anywhere that I know about.

We had a barbeque yesterday, and my Hawaiian pal Ray made these sushi rolls with SPAM inside. They were good. I had seconds. This might be the first time I've ever eaten the stuff, but apparently it is a really big deal in Hawaii.