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-

View Larger Map
-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.