Sunday, October 29, 2006

I don't drink Coffee

I didn't drink coffee or like it...that is until I went to a Starbucks Tokyo in Aoyama with a friend a had an iced cafe mocha, or something like that. I don't remember. For about $3.50, it was high-priced, but absolutely DELICIOUS! I thought -- why am I holding out on this wonderful drink? I should drink it more often! So back in Toronto, when a new Starbucks at work was opening up, there was a free 'friends and family' party I went to check it out. Free coffee. Anything you want. After a few dozen questions to help understand what I must have ordered in Tokyo, I narrowed down my choice. The result? A strong, bitter, not sweet espresso that didn't resemble at all what I had in Tokyo.

Hmm...I'm now at a standstill. I don't think I'll be drinking that same thing drink again. Back to Tokyo to figure out what I am missing.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Crazy Does It -- Rehearsing

Hey there -- now that I'm back in Toronto I've been rehearsing with the Asiansploitation comedy troupe -- a really crazy, fun and really cool bunch of people. One of the funnest rehearsals was a week ago Tuesday where, chez Max, we warmed up to music and a follow-the-rotating leader dance across his loft apartment. And after some earnest work on our scenes, we did some highly engaging Improv scenes (Paulyn as a weeping-willow table??), more music, new hairstyles, voguing (Susan to the 'bpf-ffff, bpf - fff" beats from Glenn). Meet Max's rocker dude friend, Hiro from Japan visiting for the evening. Good time!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Blog -- Phase 2

My blog is ready to evolve to phase 2. I originally created this to share stories and updates from Japan travels, but I've decided that geography should not be the limiting factor. I can share stories and updates from anywhere, even from Toronto.

There are a couple things I need to figure out (thinking aloud) -- first is what style of blogging should I do? I'm deciding between free flow, semi-long form, journal style writing, versus pics plus short tidbits that may not be overly meangingful, but that people with short-attention spans can read.

Second, I'm thinking of getting a compact digital camera to share the sights, colours and moods that surround me. Or should I create a video blog?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Yesterday -- All my Troubles...

Ricky's classmate in Nara welcomed us into their home for some Nabe (Japanese hot-pot). Delicious -- in particular the gloopy rice cake dumped right into the pot creating smells of burning. But still delicious. Afterwards, Ricky graciously volunteered my piano playing skills to which I played Bach, Beethoven, some Japanese pop, and by special request, ahem...some Beatles complete with vocal accompaniment. They were so impressed, they only wished they had advance notice so that they could invite their children back home, and all their friends in Nara to come over to listen! How very generous of them to say so! When I think back to Japan, all my troubles seemed so far away!

Mister Donut Marketing Machine

It's true! Mister Donut seems to be the biggest donut franchise in Japan! While the localized donuts were good -- my favourite being the french cruller partially dipped in chocolate with whipped cream layered in betweeen -- what was cool was the scratch and win promotion, each card with a $3 purchase. We lost, but could trade in 8 cards for a cool Mr. Donut 8-inch ceramic bowl and wooden spoon! A nice memento of Japan! Nara Mr. Donut: I'll miss you!

Reverse Culture Shock Question

Some friends asked me if I endured reverse culture shock when I came back from Japan. Indeed I did, but perhaps not the ways I would have thought in the past: the biggest was returning from vacation to work. Few responsibilities, eating, on-sens, and having fun --> regulated urban routine.

Kyoto times 3

This was my 3rd time in Kyoto -- a simple, fun, yet crowded day in Kyoto with tourists flooding the streets on a Japanese national holiday. Ricky and I could barely get a picture-perfect shot with a stream, temple and momiji (Japanese maple tree) leaves changing colour in the background.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

American Street

America-Ya! Check out this Chinatown-like street -- street vendors selling cut-price goods like Fukuoka cod roe.
$2 fresh coconut water is novel, but over-rated.
Very colourful and close to Ueno station. Check out the dried squid!
Notice in the sky on the sides are barbed wire. That's where the subway and trains roar past every few minutes.
Matsutake mushrooms at a steep discount ($20 for 3 pieces??)!

Escalator -- both sideways and up and down.

Upscale Ebisu Garden Place was quite the grind to get to: flat escalator after flat escalator...reducing a 15-minute walk to 10 minutes. Remember: Walk right, stand left -- the stark opposite of both Toronto and Osaka. If you don't, people queue irritatedly behind you before nosing their way past you.
But the most wondrous escalator trip was when I emerged from a subway deep in Tokyo's underground. I just didn`t know how deep until I saw the escalator...and the picture was only about half of it! Deep. So *very* deep.

Quiz Time: Mitsukoshi Eats with Matsutake

This is expensive yet very cool Mitsukoshi -- the one where Ginza subway meets the Oedo (?) line in central Tokyo.
Call it prime real estate with the sales of high-priced items. To entice you, there are many great tastes for free as you internally balk at the outrageous prices.

I even saw plastic sushi stalls that looked really good to eat...but were plastic.
Guess how much the pack of mitsutake mushrooms on the right cost (they grown on pine trees) -- supposedly very delicious and sold in markets in department stores and on the street. ~One hundred sixty five dollars CDN. Go figure.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Tour

The Imperial Palace moved from Kyoto to Tokyo about 200 or so years ago. Here we are just outside the grounds.
The tour was strictly controlled with obaasan (grandmas) in tow.
To join, apply in advance on-line. Luckily they had Enligsh headsets explaining everything!
This way sir -- the 1.5 hour guided tour is almost over.
Just imagine, one giant, expensive piece of real estate in central Tokyo right next to the financial district! Whoo-hoo!

Welcome to Tsukiji Fish Market

This way to Tsukiji! The biggest fish market in the world lends itself to a nice sashimi meal.
Delicious! Went to the sushi restaurant a few shops down from the McDonald`s towards the market on the less crowded side of the main street.

But it`s not enough...let me order some sashimi, too. The first time I saw the fresh fish it was cut from -- with it`s mouth still moving (check out the fish on a stick). Very fresh tasting! Yummm!!

Before I was Born, Who was I?

Even this flashy, off-focus picture captures the mystical mood of a dinner chat with some Tokyo friends: who were you in your former lives? A mountain fighter in northern China? An over-thinker prone to suicide? Come join us for a great 39th floor view from Ebisu Garden Place.

I wondering who am I, who was I, and who will I be?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sumimasen, Gomen-nasai

I`ve learned two new phrases in Japan:
1) sumimasen (excuse me, sorry, thank you for your trouble -- like the Cantonese mm-goi); and
2) gomen-nasai (I`m sorry).

Actually, I knew these before -- I just didn`t know how often they would be said -- and how it has crept into my brain as I interact more and more in Japanese and with Japanese people.
While Fukuoka/Kobe/Kyoto/Nara were fun, and I was having an awesome and carefree time with Ricky, his bride, and her sister -- both of whom were very easy-going. After a day of getting-used to these new travel partners, we developed almost instant rapport -- joke after joke, being silly -- chorusing `Itadakimasu` in a ramen restaurant to the joyous approval of the restaurant staff; practising our limited Japanese with a man on an uncrowded subway, resulting in Ricky apologizing for disrupting his travel even though it looked like he was enjoying talking to us. "Sorry they`re having fun. Sorry they`re asking you questions which you shouldn`t be obliged to answer, even if it looks like you`re having fun."

An old man and stranger at a tight-sitting 500-person festival picnic, sitting almost right next to us had a fluttering, long (3 second) fart -- I thought I was the only one that heard it, as when I looked at the man he seemed quite and unremorseful -- but then another long and fluttering fart cut forth as he stared off into the blue sky. I then looked at a Taiwan friend sitting next to me and realized she had the same reaction -- and the moment of private embarrassment became less private, which became even more public when her sister noticed the expression on both our faces -- then when I knew she knew, the 3 of us (in a party of 8) erupted into huge laughter. It was one of those moments.

But what I couldn`t quite grasp (though I guess I do) is if it was necessary to apologize and feel awkward for our laughter. Stifle your laughter. Don`t be too funny.

Another time, I was in a Tokyo izakaya/bar restaurant when someone in our party asked the waitress for the soy sauce for our sashimi appetizer she had just brought. I, though, instantly found it behind the menu holder and brought it out. But when I brought it out, the waitress apologized. For what, I wondered? That I found it? That it wasn`t placed more appropriately in the middle of the table in the first place? Or that because the soy sauce was out of sight, and she hadn`t reacted more quickly, that the person asking for it might have become embarrassed about it. My Tokyo friend and I were puzzled as were most of the others for the apology. But in Japan, I think this type of thing is common. `Sorry that my son is not a capable English learner and that he has imposed his learning disability on you in Toronto.` said mother of Yusuke. But no, I was thinking, I`m friends with your son because we enjoy talking whether in English and Japanese and he is very capable and smart.

So -- let`s all find a reason to say sorry. I have started to do so whether I want to or not. Sorry I troubled you to get me a glass of water. Sorry I was 2 minutes late for our meeting. Sorry I was laughing too hard. And sorry that I like to joke around and that people are laughing when I say something exaggerated, or unexpectedly funny. And sorry for making you read this blog. I will not be so verbose in the future.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Destroying Spider Webs

I spotted the first large spider 2 nights ago when I arrived at Ricky`s in Fukuoka. It was crawling amongst the entranceway shoes. `Just leave it,` he said.

Next morning, everyone still asleep, I spotted a couple moderate-sized spider webs by the driveway entrance which I decided were too close to the house. With a bamboo stick, I knocked off the part touching the house, and let the remaining part dangle in the air, the yellow 2-inch spider clinging to its web as it blew about in the strong wind. Ricky`s other visitors supported my efforts though he appeared indifferent.

But this morning, while enroute to the compost bin in the backyard, my face got unexpectedly entangled with a couple webs. I then decided it was time for ALL webs to go. With the 4 foot long bamboo stick in hand, I challenged the largest webs I could see -- 8 in total perhaps covering 24 square feet of web -- each with it`s own 1-2 inch yellow and black spider on it. Tomorrow, I will seek out any new webs as I compost the water spinach before we hop on an early train to the Kobe area. Japan is the land of spiders. People believe in their homes, they are ancestors, though once outside, they are not. Time to sweep them out.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


1)浴巾(yu jin = bath towel)
2) 蒸蛋(zheng1 dan4 = steamed egg)


日本語を練習しています(In Japanese)

1)Asking for water: お冷(おひや)。これは水です。僕は友達と居酒屋に行った時、「お冷お願いします!」といいました。「水お願いします。」の同じ意味です。
2)Calling attention: レストランにいる時、もしウェイターを言いたいなら、大きい声で「すみません!」といえます。前に、私は小さい声で「すみません」を使いました。
3) Asking for free re-fills: お替わり(おかわり)。もしご飯とかお茶は終わったなら、ウェイターに「ご飯のお替わり」といえます。僕たちは今晩は、おいしかった焼き肉を食べていた時、この言葉をよく使いました。

5 out of 8 Tokyo-ites are Borg!

It`s confirmed: 5 out of 8 Tokyo-ites are Borg based on regeneration activities spotted on a Tokyo AM rush-hour subway. The nodded-off heads were spotted on 4 benches, bodies regenerating and faces expressionless. There were fewer in Osaka, though further AM rush hour confirmation is required. Fukuoka and Kobe reports pending.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Yokohama Chinatown Soup Special!

Yokohama`s Chinatown is perhaps Japan`s biggest and best.
Our immediate task was to eat. I first noticed the plastic models of food in the restaurant windows. While most appeared tasty, the perfectly rounded fried rice with plastic shrimp and egg seemed more Japanese-Chinese than authentic Chinese. Still, I wondered what it would taste like.

After evaluating about 20 restaurants, and avoiding the palatial ones with prices to match, we found one place off-the beaten trail with a set lunch menu available until 2PM: a choice of dumplings such as gyoza/guo-tie, a meat/vegetable dish, steamed Japanese-style rice and soup were only $6!

We settled on a place where the waiter spoke better Chinese than Japanese, except that he then directed us across the narrow street to a waitress in the `same restaurant`. What? Why would a restaurant be split on two sides of a narrow street? We glanced into a dimly lit, reddish-brown interior with small wooden seats and 6-7 small round tables as a middle-aged man in a white smock was making dumplings. Very authentic. My watch said 1:59PM indicating no time to choose if we wanted a lunch special. We went in.

This Japanese-speaking waitress, however was less welcoming: `By the way, since it`s late for lunch, our only soup is `shou-yuu suu-pu.` Huhn? It sounded like she said soy-sauce soup. I looked at my friend, Atsushi perplexed.
The pan-fried home-style dumplings were first and delicious -- something my mom might make. The soup was next: a light brown broth with floating bits of green onion. I took a hesitant sip. This was indeed soy sauce soup. Water, soy sauce, and green onion. Atsushi was less dumbfounded than I: `this is not uncommon in Japan` he said.

Still, I wasn`t happy. The pork dish was similar to a Chinese-Canadian restaurant preparation with canned baby corn and onions, while the rice was Japanese -- what I`d expect while eating Chirashi sushi. Only the dumplings were good -- 1 out of 4.

From this one place, I rate Yokohama Chinese food a 4/10. That is unless you want to chuckle at the tourists buying giant, and I`m talking huge, steamed buns for $5, or you want to chat with Chinese or Taiwanese staff asking them `but where do the local Chinese people go to eat Chinese food?` which we tried. Clearly, the $30-60 hotel restaurants were overpriced. For Chinese food in Japan, I recommend `Champon` or `ramen` in Fukuoka or Nagasaki.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I used to enjoy visiting Tokyo. Now I can`t take the crowds. Imagine the entire Canadian population squeezed into the GTA and you get a city with no breathing room. I was friggin' tapped out. Shinjuku station was a blathering mess of people, and I was queuing 2 minutes to just get *onto* the escalator. The trains were long, full, and crowded with long, unproductive train rides on which locals spend 2-5 hours a day.

Imagine a fish swimming upstream against a crowd of people. That`s me. Yes, I saw the marketing potential of an endless stream of consumers, but the weight of people was oppressive. Space, relative quiet, and not having to queue to simply get into a coffee shop is something I've become accustomed to. Sigh.

First Japanese Family Homestay

My first 48 hours in Japan were with my friend, Yusuke, and his parents -- a rather exciting time for them, and a special time for me.
His father was persevering and philosophical, having learned English while at the OECD in Paris. His big words and broad concepts were warm and thoughtful: 'James -- how long will you live?" he asked. 'Since my father died when he was 72, I know my time in this world is limited, so I cherish every encounter I have, like this one.'
Yusuke's mom contrasted with her giddiness. Over dinner at a nicer version of Toronto`s Red Lobster, she knocked a standing wine glass with a contrasting arm movement in a desire to bring the Hokkaido crab legs closer to me.

Her curiosity stood out most: supported by her husband's occasional translation and context-framing of her questions, I moved into a Japanese discourse on Europe's quest for a north-west passage to Asia, the reason for English dominance in North America, and general Canadian immigration trends. Not bad practice as I found my historical knowledge and Japanese vocab being put to the test.

I now see Yusuke is a combination of mom, dad and his emerging self. We`ve always conversed easily in Canada, and with the curiosity of his mom, the philosophical bent of his dad, and his own interest in business models and general concepts, chatted at lenght in the rather upscale Aoyama Starbucks. But where I started to shift, was when he told me about his 8:20AM to 10PM daily work schedule followed by a return to a strictly controlled dorm where friends and family are prohibited entry. Not only do you have dinner very late, but you`re eating with colleagues most of the time. Imagine -- as a junior worker, you would work, eat, sleep. Repeat. Weekends are often spent with co-workers hanging out, or spending time with the supervisor and your work group on casual driving trips. Sure it may be fun -- but I'm trying to imagine weekends with my entire working team. I can`t think of my supervisor wanting to hang out with me on weekends.

We parted ways on a rainy Tokyo Monday morning, rolling my heavy suitcase to the bus-stop, onto the bus, to a train, then a couple more trains, onto my next destination: Machida City, south-west Tokyo.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Nori means two things to me.
1) The flavoured seaweed pieces I've been enjoying lately; and

2) A Japanese acquaintance I bumped into at the Toronto airport. Nori was ahead of me in line, recognized me, and chatting, we realized just how similar our vacations in Japan are: we`re out of Toronto for 2 weeks, both flying into Tokyo, both visiting the Fukuoka area, and both flying back from Vancouver to Toronto on the 15th. I`ll have to compare food stories when I bump into him again.