Tuesday, March 31, 2009

3:10 to Tokyo - part two

Part two of WTF's 3:10 to Tokyo tour dropped us off at the base of Tokyo Tower, an impressive steel structure rivaling the Eiffel Tower. I was hoping to see Godzilla or Mothra battling it out but they must have been taking the afternoon off. We did see the Noppon Brothers though and just like Tiger and Winnie the Pooh before them, Kawaii Girl #1 was unimpressed and rather freaked out.

With the absence of WTF Husband, corralling the Kawaii Girls-sort of like trying to pen a wild stallion with a hand tied behind your back-can be tricky. Once I had geared up and got ourselves situated, my crew was gone. Um, hello, did you forget your friend with the two small children over here?

For a moment, a very long, sca
ry moment, I was overcome with fear that I was in Japan, didn't speak enough Japanese beyond toire desu ka? and was stuck in the middle of a couple hundred people standing outside knowing what they were doing, while I didn't.

Deep breath, inhale in, hold it...hold it, exhale out, okay, grab my hands Kawaii Girls, we're going in.

If I thought outside was overwhelming, inside wa
s in one word, ridiculous. Memories of my honeymoon came flooding back when my claustrophobia first presented itself whilst I was in the dead center of Chichen Itza's pyramid.

Despite being greeted by
several lovely ladies that looked more like 1970's stewardesses than modern day tourist movers...who tried to do just that, move this tourist towards the other thousand or so tourists onto an elevator...I opted to forgo the observatory deck in favor of the "aquarium."

Note th
e air quotes. Nothing more than a bunch of fish tanks ala the aquatic section at PetSmart. For 1000Yen it was a waste of money for what there was to view but I found my breath again. I hadn't realized I had been holding it for the last 15 minutes. Plus the Kawaii Girls were free to roam without fear of being trampled, we sat around a cheesy indoor koi pond that reminded me of my mother (the koi not the cheese) and so in the end, yen well spent. A quick and crazy lunch afterward, we were ready to head to the observatory deck, a staggering 150 meters (492 feet) in the sky. The crowd had thinned down to just this picture. This was only half of the line leading to the elevators. It moved quickly with 3 elevators taking 50 or so people up at a time.

I'll leave you with just a few impressive shots and Tokyo Tower by the numbers...333 13 4000 3000 28000 24 176 360. No this isn't an Episode of Lost, the plane isn't going to crash and you're not going to find yourself in the psych ward.

333 meters tall, besting the Eiffel Tower by 13 meters
4000 tons heavy, 3000 tons lighter than the Eiffel Tower thanks to steel manufacturing advances and construction technology (folks, this is Japan)
28,000 liters of orange and white paint
24 transmitting broadcast waves
176 orange floodlights in the winter, white in the summer
360 degree spectacular views of Tokyo

Monday, March 30, 2009

3:10 to Tokyo - part one

A little thing like having WTF Husband MIA isn't going to stop this girl about town from seeing...well, the town. Metropolis actually. The Kawaii Girls, two of them, one of me, left our little corner of the world, boarded a bus and headed to Tokyo.

Since I'm all for a laugh, I'll let you all in on a little secret...I've been known to get carsick before, sadly, I've even employed the little paper bag stowed in your seat back pocket on an airplane (that is a whole embarrassing story of its own). There was just something about this bus ride up to Tokyo that put me in a tailspin. I tried to channel every mind over matter technique I know but still found myself in the toilet on the bus. There was no place to stand, bend over and loose it. So there I sat, hovered over a cup sized sink, washing my Raisin Bran down the drain.

Once I had my sea legs back, I found myself at the Meiji Shrine 明治神宮. This Shinto shrine is an oasis in the middle of a Tokyo concrete jungle. 175 acres of an evergreen forest, a shrine like no other here. If you hadn't paid attention to the traffic you drove through to get there, or, ahem...if you were hanging out in the toilet like I was, you would have no clue you were in the world's most populous city, and in a very fashionable part of Tokyo no less. Harajuku is just a short walk away.

This shrine was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Public donations rebuilt the shrine in 1958 and it is now the most heavily visited place in Japan during New Year's. Over 3 million people gather to worship and celebrate, buying good luck charms, or happy charms, for the year ahead.

This torii gate is the biggest wooden torii of the Myojin style. It's 12 meters tall and a bit over 9 meters between the two pillars. Torii gates mark the transition from the the normal, impure world of the outside to the sacred world of the shrine.

The act of passing underneath a torii, along with washing your hands and mouth with water, is an act of sanctification and purification. Harae is the general term for Shinto purifications. It removes sins, bad luck, disease and guilt. If you are in a state of uncleanliness you are not permitted in a Shinto shrine to pray. Sounds a lot like things we do in the Catholic faith.

These small wooden placks are called Ema 絵馬, which worshipers write their prayers and wishes on. They are left hanging so the kami (gods) later read them. If the wish comes true, the person hangs another ema at the shrine in gratitude.

Sake 日本酒 is often consumed as part of Shinto purification rituals and during ceremonies. Sake brewers will donate barrels of sake to shrines for use during these events. You will see empty decoration barrels displayed at shrines. A great read on the spiritual significance of sake and these beautiful barrels.

A display case of omamori お守り for sale. They are little cloth envelopes that hold a piece of paper or wood with a variety of prayers written on them, bringing the bearer good luck or warding off bad. Recall my blog post about keitai straps, omamori are often hung on cellphones or in cars for safety during travel. If they are opened, they are said to lose their protective abilities and are normally replaced every year.

No fantastic explanation of the history behind these shots. I just marvel at the architecture and artistry.

We were fortunate enough to be witness to a Shinto wedding ceremony. Here is video of the processional after the ceremony. You can here one of the Kawaii Girls talking about God. It was quite amazing and I found it to be very spiritual.

This is enough to digest for one day. Stayed tuned for 3:10 to Tokyo - part two and part three.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cherry of a forecast

Even on a tree lined street leading to the McDonald's, you will find Sakura trees with blooming cherry blossoms. Not quite the most serene of locations but a Big Mac sure tastes good sitting under such beauty.

In Japan, cherry blossoms are more than just a pretty flower to look at. They are symbolic of the Buddhist's belief in the transience of life, nothing but a fleeting speck of sand in the time table of existence.

With great anticipation, each February national agencies publish forecasts based on historical data and current weather trends to narrow down the blooming time. The area I live in is forecasted for March 25, today. And they are pretty darn close. Many trees are approaching full bloom, while others are just starting to show their buds.

*Forecast map courtesy of Tenki

Cherry blossom viewing, known as hanami 花見, has been a Japanese custom since the 7th century. All throughout Japan, large cities and small countryside towns come out en masse to revel.

In reading about the history of the cherry blossom I came across the Japanese proverb, hana yori dango 花より団子, which literally means dumplings rather than flowers...practicality over aesthetics. No surprise the preferred food eaten during hanami is the dango, a slightly sweet dumpling. The cherry blossom, for all its beauty and charm, provides the perfect occasion to have a giant party full of good eats and free flowing spirits.

Cherry blossoms are looking sweeter than ever. Where's my Sapporo, I'm headed out to celebrate!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Top 5 unfortunately named Japanese coffees

Canned coffee, both hot and cold, are staples found in every vending machine you encounter in Japan. WTF Husband and I were giddy (okay, I was giddy, he was thirsty) with excitement when we had our first can of hot coffee from a machine. Then we read the names. No doubt I should be more mature about it, but truthfully, every time I see these, I can't "can" my laughter. No commentary necessary, these speak for themselves:

BM Coffee Deepresso Coffee

BJ Coffee Black Boss Coffee

GOD Coffee

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gaijin 101

I opted to take human anatomy and physiology in high school, thinking physics wasn't going to be my thing. I have a nagging feeling that I am soon to learn one of the undisputed laws of physics. Am I in a bubble and is it about to burst? I'm not talking about the housing market either. *photo courtesy of Photoshop Phursday and no McDonald's doesn't look like that in Japan.

Why haven't I experienced culture shock? I would kind of like to get it out of the way. It has been 6+ weeks since I arrived in Japan and it strikes me every few days that I feel so completely normal and comfortable here. It is becoming my mantra when people ask me how I am liking it in Japan. "Just great, I feel so completely normal and comfortable here," I say with my trademark toothy smile. This is peculiar given that my house is pure chaos...between the boxes that I frankly am not interested in unpacking at the moment, despite them dangerously teetering on the top step, the kawaii girls who have reached a new level of unruliness and the fact that WTF Husband is no where in sight. Okay, those actually aren't abnormalities in my household, that's pretty much the norm. Still I wait. Wait, wait, wait. "Oh culture shock, where are you, come out-come out wherever you are."

Given that I am thousands of miles away from home, living in a foreign country...a really foreign country with no less than three strange alphabets...I keep expecting it to hit me. Instead, every time I walk out of the gates of the base, I feel exhilarated and somehow enlightened, like thousands of years of Buddhism is welling up inside of me. I'm living in Disney World only bigger and better. And the goosebumps don't go away. This place I now call home is magical. I love how the streets bustle but in near silence, how the girls behind the counter at Vie de France bakery always giggle and wave to me as I pass by their shop or when I walk in cheerfully greet me by saying "
Irasshaimase." I admire the incredible attention to detail, how even at the 100 Yen store, my items are carefully wrapped and taped up in a bag. How the smell of the fish market on Blue Street sort of thrills me instead of repulses. Everything is refreshingly new and exciting and wonderful. I want to hang my laundry on the patio to dry, eat rice and drink tea all day long and go to sleep on a futon.

This is where I wish I took physics. Perhaps if I had studied
E = m c^2\, instead of toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the leg bone (ala Dem Bones,) I could better prepare for the inevitable. What goes up, must come down. The culture shock is out there, lurking behind a street corner waiting to tag me. And so I know I will fall from this culture-high I am on. My bubble will burst and I'll be left in a tiny puddle of shock. Until then I am going to continue to smell the cherry blossoms and think of it as the most intoxicating fragrance ever to pass me by.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Good Eats - Sushi

It's not like I expected the things I know to be true in America to actually ring true here, but I was kind of hoping that I'd see a California roll on the conveyor belt come my way. I didn't. I'm a confessed sushi virgin. Apparently there are still a few of us out there and I'm not ashamed to admit it. On Friday night, when I ventured out on the rainy streets of Yokosuka looking for a sushi-go-round (sushi served on a conveyor belt), I experienced real sushi, for the first time. Streets that while being very densely populated with people, were surprisingly quiet. Well, mostly quite. I was talking, loudly of course.

The types of sushi all my friends and family eat are basically a western invention to suit the American palette. Of course we'd have to do it differently, the majority of us couldn't stomach the the things I saw. However hopeful I was, there were no California rolls of avocado, crab and cucumber...no Dynamite rolls of yellowtail and spicy mayonnaise...no Spider rolls of fried crab...definitely no Philadelphia rolls of cream cheese, salmon and cucumber...and absolutely no rolls coated in fried tempura batter. This is a good article on "Why They Think We're Crazy".

What I did encounter scared me to the point of giggles. Sitting inside a nondescript sushi-go-round, part restaurant, part fish stand, the smell of fish was sobering. I wasn't drunk, though hopeful, but any bravado I had to that point was kicked to the curb like last week's trash. There on the conveyor belt was Nigiri-zushi, little fingers of rice topped with wasabi and a filet of raw fish. I sat stunned for several moments. My girlfriend actually had to nudge me to jumpstart my breathing again. There were a few non-raw specimens, a cooked piece of shrimp on rice, an egg omelet and some inari (fried tofu pouches of rice) all of which I happily ate, while I turned down plate after plate of fish guts, octopus with the suckers still sucking, and something fairly transparent that reminded me of sperm with little eye balls staring back.

After a biiru, lots of pep talks from my girlfriend, even a fellow gaijin stranger prodding me along, the time had come. I settled on tuna. It took me a minute or two, my chopsticks quivering, probably from the laughing convulsions of my nervousness. It is hard to think that I blended with the rest of the patrons.

I didn't eat the whole of the two pieces. I should have because I didn't find it offensive in the least. It was butter tender, with no traces of fishiness. If I had been blindfolded and told otherwise, I would have believed it to be the finest cut of beef available. But I knew. I knew I was eating raw fish and that was stronger than the sweet, delicate taste of the tuna.

For a first timer, I suppose I followed most of the rules of etiquette, and there are quite a few. Thankfully, the Japanese are very forgiving of gaijin misteps, because as it turns out after some research, I made a faux-pas or two. The local sitting to my right kept a watchful eye on me, offering me a plate for I thought the leftover shrimp tails. She quickly waved her hand, made a little noise that I couldn't identify and pointed to the pot of gari (ginger) that you use to cleanse your palette between bites. Oh! Okay, oops! I dipped the whole sushi into the mixture of shoyu and wasabi, which is a no-no, as I learned, it sort of makes a rice soup when the bits of rice fall off. Fish only dipping. Oh! Okay, got it! And as for as mixing the shoyu and wasabi...in my defense that is what my girlfriend told me to do...that is considered an afront to the itamae (sushi chef). Last time I listen to her. He portions the exact amount of wasabi to the proportion of fish and rice. Why then do they provide little packets of wasabi? I guess you're supposed to sneak it on the fish when he isn't looking. What happens when he catches you? I thought he had a more than watchful eye on me.

It has been said (by who I don't know but this his quote) "The only rule at a sushi bar is to eat what you like, how you like it, and as much as you like. Anyone who tells you differently is full of it." So there, I like to dip my rice in shoyu, use a separate plate for my shrimp tails and dare to have the ginger sitting next to the pieces of sushi on my plate. And I like wasabi, far more than the itamae deems sufficient.

As I later learned, this was a pretty hardcore restaurant. Of course, you will find in Japan, sushi restaurants that serve Maki-zushi, which are rice and seaweed rolls full of fish and vegetables, which, ding-ding-ding, is a more traditional version of the California or Philadelphia roll, though you will never find cream cheese in anything here. Heresy I suspect. There are many variations of Maki-zushi, Futomaki - thick rolls, Hosomaki - thin rolls and Uramaki - inside out rolls. Nothing is straightforward here in Japan.

I will try again, next time choosing a more liberal restaurant, one that doesn't scare the wasabi out of me, but I did it, I did what all the other kids are doing, I ate sushi. And as any newly de-virginized gal does, practice is going to make perfect.