Tuesday, September 29, 2009

my annual check up

So that just happened. Every year all of the people in the University must go for a health check up. However, you don't get to do this on your own terms, rather, they set aside a two week period in September, split the days up between males and females and assign various departments a few days from which to choose. Prior to the session, there was an uncomfortable encounter where my boss and I filled out my health questionnaire together --line by line-- with the help of her electronic dictionary for any unsavory terms, such as what to do with that complicated sample cup thing. After a restless night filled with nightmares of sample cups with hundreds of pieces and moving parts, I got up this morning, skipped breakfast as instructed, figured out the cup and rode to school. At fifteen minutes before the start, there was already a line of women (holding questionnaires and discreet paper bags) snaking out the door of the health center and around the building. The line moved pretty quickly, at least, and for the next hour I made my way through the building (following the bright red arrows) standing in one line after the next. First I waited to check-in, then I got in a longer line that travelled the length of the staircase in order to turn in my sample. Then I made my way around a blind corner and stood in another line that turned out to be for my blood pressure. The front 4 places of this line were spots on a blue pleather couch that faced the 10 nurses. As the line progressed, everyone on the couch silently nudged over one perfectly spaced spot. Blood pressure taken and thumbs up received, I moved down the hall to two young men at a table with vials. One handed me my three vials while the other (bless his heart) filled in my name (in katakana) on the form to match the numbers on the vials. A brief rest on another blue couch was followed by the fastest blood test I have ever received. I was then motioned to the next room, where, behind some screens, I waited in line to receive a very heavy blanket, which told me the X-ray must be next. But first I had to fill in my own name and the kanji that represents the Earthquake Research Institute (copied from my form). This is pretty complicated Kanji and I was going really slowly, so the line started backing up. Finally the woman at the table just waved me to move on, I guess I had gotten the essence of Earthquake down and that was close enough. Baskets in cubbies on the side indicated to me that I needed to remove some of my clothing, but apparently not enough, because the X-ray attendant yanked at my sports bra and wouldn't stop until I took it off, at which point I was smashed into the wall and the image taken. After that I sort of lost the thread and couldn't find any more red arrows so I just stood there in the hallway with this lead blanket, looking lost. Help came quickly and I was ushered up the stairs to the hearing and vision exams - lots of charades involved here - and finally to my consultation with the doctor. While I waited, I started to panic and took out my guidebook with helpful phrases for when one is at the hospital, but thankfully the doc spoke English. Turns out I'm quite "genki" (healthy). Phew! Glad I don't have to go through all of that for another year.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My new Saturday routine

So I have a new Saturday morning routine, well, that is, if you call two weeks in a row a routine. I do. Anyway, I start off the morning with a little jog. Emphasis on the word little, since so far these jogs only last about 20 minutes or so. But I think it will be a great way to explore my neighborhood as I increase the loop a little bit each time. And lord knows I needed to start doing some kind of exercise, or I was going to be forced into a career in Sumo ;P (see next blog entry).
After the run, I clean up and ride my bike to the Dori (aka main street) down the hill. This street is a little sleepy at night, but on Saturday mornings, it is just humming. First thing I do is "balance my checkbook", which is to say I just shove the passbook into the atm. There is no check writing here, and all transactions are instant, so this method is totally accurate and the easiest thing ever. I haven't actually used a check register since the early 90's, so this is a BIG improvement to my financial state of affairs.

Then I ride over to this little store that sells grilled cakes in the shape of fish. They are warm and crispy on the outside and stuffed with red bean paste. I've become quite a fan. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to bring a box to a dinner party. There is a more famous store about half a block further down, but, as is often the case, they ran out of fish early. So then I decided to give this little stand a try. The two fellas inside the booth were so nice and funny (they now wave at me when I pass them first on the way to the bank), that I just go straight to them every week.

Finally, I go to this cute coffee shop called Yanaka house. I like the dark wood interior, the funny barrel with plastic coffee replicas outside and the beans for sale that are tumbling around and being roasted on site. But most importantly, I feel sorry for them because a big chain coffee shop opened up two doors down and always has a line out the door. So, late Saturday mornings, I can be found at Yanaka house, eating the fish, drinking some coffee and studying my kanji flashcards. Well, I can be found there for as long as this routine lasts anyway.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We just had a 5-day federal holiday weekend (called Silver Week) here in Japan. Monday was Respect for the Aged Day, Tuesday something called "Bridge Public Holiday" and Wednesday was the Autumn Equinox. I have since confirmed that Bridge day is just a day to bridge the gap between the other two holidays and not really a holiday set aside for a feat of civil engineering.

On about Wednesday of the week before, Ryan and I decided it might be nice to maybe go away somewhere for the long weekend. On about Thursday I thought I would try to find a reservation in one of the close getaway spots. You can probably see where this is going. Orbitz practically laughed at me. There was not a single room available, I think, in all of Japan. So instead we decided to be tourists in Tokyo and check out some of our own local cultural treasures. Our first adventure was to ride our bikes to nearby Ueno park to check on the lotus plants in the pond (they are bigger than ever) and visit some of the museums (there are at least four). We went to the Tokyo National Museum, which consists of about six separate buildings. The main building (below) houses the Japanese-specific art and artifacts, including ancient vases, kimonos, old maps and incredibly impressive swords. The other buildings hold less interesting collections of various Asian art. From some of the buildings we could glimpse bits of the lush garden and old-fashioned teahouse in the back. Apparently the garden area is only open for one month in the Spring (to view the cherry blossoms) and one month in the Fall (to view the changing leaves). So plan your visit accordingly!
Then we road over to Ueno's narrow streets of shops and restaurants, dined and took in some cinema. Okay, so Wolverine is hardly high art, but it was pretty fun to relax and watch a flick. As long as we make sure to pick a movie that has subtitles and is not dubbed, we can pretty much see any movie easily, albeit about 6 months after it was originally released. Oh and we can also quite easily eat fries and hotdogs at the movies if we desired, by purchasing them from this nifty vending machine (and yes that is a popcorn vending machine on the left).
On another day of silver week we trekked out to Rappongi to the Mori Art Center. Down on the ground floor they were having a big show of traditional dance, music and martial arts. Here were a group of boys doing some cool choreographed fighting moves that got dangerously close to cheerleading at times. I loved it!
Then we braved the lines to head up to the 53rd floor of Mori Tower where there is a museum, a sky deck and an aquarium. The museum was featuring contemporary art by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, which included cool pieces made of compressed tea leaves (a cubic ton of them to be exact), bits of drift wood grafted together to make a hollow in the middle in the shape of China, and controversial pieces in which he essentially destroys vases that date to 5000 B.C. No cameras allowed in there of course. The view from the sky deck was pretty amazing. We could travel around the floor with an almost completely unobstructed view, so that probably 270 degrees of Tokyo were visible. We tested our geography. Most notably in this view is the big red and white Tokyo Tower.
The final feature of the tower was the aquarium. I think it actually has some jazzier name, but really it was an aquarium. The first big room simply housed many normal-sized aquariums (fresh and seawater) filled with certainly pretty, but not entirely exotic fish. The aquariums and their contents were not all that dissimilar to what you would find in homes and office buildings. The strangest part about it was that loud techno music was playing, the lights were off and most of the aquariums were lit with black lights. It gets weirder.

The next room was playing disco and had mirrored floors and giant tanks filled with goldfish. Just goldfish. So many of them that they resembled moving specks of light from a disco ball. From there we entered a turquoise room that focused entirely on jellyfish. And lasers. The center piece was a tall tank with two kinds of polka dotted jellyfish (left). With the changing light coming from above, the jelly fish themselves became polka dots in the otherwise empty tank.

The last main room had a kaleidagraph theme, with the tanks taking on geometric shapes of colored glass and each housing a large quantity of a single kind of fish (right). Odd as it was, you really did get the feeling that you were on the inside of one of these toys.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cooking101: goya chanpuru

When we first arrived, my department took the two of us out for an after work party at a nearby restaurant. It was an enlightening experience for us because this was our first big sit-on-the-floor japanese style party. We got to see many of the things we read about in our guidebooks put into action. There was a lot of topping off of other people's beer and sake, lots of drinking, lots of stories and lots of great food. Among the many things that were brought out for the table on platters (including horse carpaccio - sorry but this was really tasty) was an apparently classic Okinawan dish called goya chanpuru. I was particularly excited about the chanpuru because not only was it really yummy, it also looked very simple to replicate. I thought "I can totally copy this". The star ingredient is goya, a bitter melon that looks like a bumpy cucumber. I don't know if this is readily available in the states, but I had been passing it by in the supermarket here for weeks before I realized that it was something other than a bumpy cucumber. A quick google search got me lots of easy to follow recipes for this okinawa specialty, including a very silly video. It essentially contains onion, tofu, scrambled egg, fatty pork and goya (that has first been salted like eggplant to remove some of the bitter, which I learned only after a first unsuccessful attempt at using it).
Tofu gets fried up first (and if you drain it and dry it out first it doesn't look like a mushy blob) and then the pork and onion (shown here with the ever popular IKEA wokpan and wooden thing).

Then you add in all the other bits (I put my egg in last to bind everything together) and some sauce (of soy sauce, sake, miso paste and sugar). I am not going to give the actual amounts of anything for two reasons: 1) I don't really expect anyone to make this, I am merely providing pictures to show you my kitchen adventures, and 2) I don't actually own any measuring utensils so I pretty much just winged it anyway. Here is what it looked like. It's not pretty but it was true to what I had in the restaurant and I thought quite tasty.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Love Akiba

Well, truth be told, I'm rather more ambivalent about Akihabara, or 'Akiba' as it is called for short. It is Tokyo's electronics district. I suppose if I were in the market for a new phone or perhaps cool dingleberries to hang thereon, this would be the place to go. And I'm informed that gearheads the world over come just to window shop and catch up on the latest greatest technology. I was less excited about it all. I did enjoy the 5 story building of arcade games and video games (they distinguish between the two). The video games were all of the seated variety, with a joystick and several buttons and seemed to be variations (very high-resolution variations) of street fighter/mortal kombat. The arcade games included shooting and driving games and anything you did standing up or holding props. For a dollar each, Ryan and I hacked at vampires and skeletons with a lightsaber-like tool behind a half curtain. The graphics were pretty sweet. We died at the first big boss. By far the most impressive of the bunch were the rock band-style games. Below, from left to right, is someone kicking ass on a guitar, another on the drums, then a guy on a mock dj-ing game that we had never seen before, and some gaijin trying out dance revolution (none of these to the same song mind you, the noise in this place was deafening).
Another noteworthy feature of Akiba is the ubiquity of gals in french maid outfits. Also in attendance are a few nurses and a Little Bow Peep thrown in for good measure. I suspect that the presence of such provocative figures on every corner might be the true source of folks' affinity for Akiba.

Not to be outdone....

Saturday, September 05, 2009

the music scene

Last week we went out to Yokohama to watch my friend Marianna sing. She and her band were playing at a cool little american-themed bar called Muddy's. They were serving all you can drink beer and platters full of hearty food (fried chicken, spaghetti, french fries, an awesome cheese casserole). Three bands were on the lineup that night: Marianna and the Ketchups (above and below); Fujiyama Soulmama; and Got.
The first two bands played fun bluesy songs (Mustang Sally, Voo Doo Woman, Hey Bartender, Jail House Rock) to which the crowd (particularly us gaijin) sang along. Everyone got into it and it was a blast. The last band was the local favorite. They sang Japanese oldies that everyone but us seemed to know all the words to. After the three bands did their sets (each with a last song in response to the chants of "En-cor-ay"), a hybrid group comprised of a few members of each band (and one rowdy drunk guy from the audience) got up and jammed for a couple of songs.

Here is a pic taken from the other direction that I stole from the web. Hey who is that in the crowd?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Our next adventure was not really a festival, but a shokihara, or summer party, hosted by my work. The professors and grad students prepared yummy traditional foods, including meats and fish on sticks, fried noodles, shaved ice and some mochi concoctions....

Mochi was prepared with the traditional bucket and mallets like so - a process whereby rice is turned into the most sticky, chewy thing imaginable. Traditional new year's fare apparently.

They also had beer and sweet plum wine, an ice block in the middle to allow us to think cool thoughts, blind pinata-style beatings of watermelon and many coworkers dressed in yukata. They even let me wear one for a while. I definitely want to buy one next summer for festival season, although the intricate wrapping
that is involved is pretty intimidating.