Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Open House at the University

Every August, the Institute where I work open its doors to the public to show what we are doing in the field of earthquake research. In the days leading to the open house, some major housekeeping went down. Somebody lined up all the old bikes that are apparently on permanent storage on campus.

In the lobby of our building, they set up a seismogram to entice some future geologists.

And here is a future structural engineer checking out the integrity of this train and mini skyline before it experiences a mini magnitude 8.

And out in our parking lot they set up the traveling catfish. I'll explain: an old Japanese tale claims that earthquakes were caused by giant catfish in the sea. Old woodblock prints show folks alternating between stabbing the catfish and bringing him offerings for appeasement. Here they have got a van with a mockup kitchen inside hooked up to some hardcore hydraulics to simulate an earthquake. Ryan and I got inside it. They slowly work their way up so that in the beginning I was giggling and standing and by the end I was screaming and holding my head under the table.

We've also got a pretty good collection of old earthquake-themed woodblock prints that we displayed during the open house. I know it's morbid, but I really like the ones with lots of fire. I like how fire and waves are depicted in prints. Unfortunately I have no idea what this one is called.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Every now and then I go to dinner with my boss and another female professor. We use it as an opportunity to try new restaurants or, more often, introduce me to a new style of Japanese cuisine. After being here over a year now, I have tried just about everything, but one thing that I never managed to cross off the list was Sukiyaki. With a little research, my boss tracked down a very traditional, old restaurant right by campus and last Friday the three of us went.
The restaurant, called Echikatsu, has apparently been around for as long as the University: 140 years!
With tall apartment buildings on either side, it is this small chunk of old world charm in the middle of Bunkyo-ku. After walking through the front garden, we made our way to the proprietor, who was waiting for us. We dropped off our shoes and were led down this old hall way - one side is glass looking out to the garden, the other side is full of paper screen doors - to our private tatami room.
Sukiyaki is very similar to nabe, or stew, that we often have during the winter. However, with sukiyaki, you typically use much higher quality beef, and a lot of it. So that you don't lose track of your high quality beef (in this case, Matsuzaka beef), you use much less broth, just about a half inch or so. A handful of vegetables and some tofu are simmered in there as well, but really this dish is all about the beef. The other thing that separates sukiyaki from other dishes is that you dip everything into a beaten raw egg before eating it. Our association with raw eggs is probably why this dish hasn't really become popular in the States. It's a pity, because it really was amazing. I can't remember eating more meat in one sitting before.
After dinner we poked around the building and went to see their back garden and small koi pond. Here I am with my boss.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer work party

Just like last year, we had a shokihara at work to celebrate summer. Unlike last year, nobody wore yukatas. Too bad. I was all set to wear mine, had it sitting on my desk in a bag and everything, but every time I looked down from my office, no yukatas. What I did see were a whole lot of preparations that started as early as 2 pm.
Crucial to the evening's success was the big block of ice sitting there in the middle. Part of the block was used for shaved ice, but this chunk here in the middle is just for looks. "If we look at it, we become cool" is what I was told. 

Someone has got to mind the melons.

At about 6pm the action really started happening, so I went down to join the fun. The man cooking the yakisoba here was the organizer of the event. He is definitely the hardest working man in summer parties. He never stops.
Here are some barbecued squid. I wish I liked these more because they are at every festival, but they smell a little funny to me.

Here my friend Tasaka-san (PhD student in our lab) ladles out some oden soup. I think she gave me the last of the chunks, though. Oishi!

At dusk the games begin. Those melons weren't just for eating. Here the blindfolded person tries to hit the watermelon with the bat, while avoiding the minefield of dummy balloons filled with water. The man on the microphone talks him through it. He only gets one try, so the alignment has to be perfect. Two seconds after I snapped this picture, he whacked the heck out of that green balloon. Next!

And no celebration would be complete without some tasty meats on sticks. Hey, there is the organizer again, this time on yakitori duty.
And for dessert, shaved ice with red beans, tapioca pearls, peaches, pineapples, green tea syrup and coconut milk. What? I was only supposed to pick a couple of toppings?  Oops.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Izu Islands Part II: Shikinejima

In the previous blog post, I talked about our time on Kozushima. The second morning, we boarded the ferry and went about 50 minutes north to neighboring island, Shikinejima.
Shikinejima is very tiny. You can rent a bike and easily ride around the perimeter in a couple of hours. Or you can walk straight across from one side to the other in about a half hour.

We had some time to kill before we could check into our hotel, so we decided to hike over to the ruins of the Takamori Lighthouse. Up, up and up we climbed...
...until we reached the top, where there awaited a 3 foot tall "tribute", if you will, to the former lighthouse.  Kinda silly. But the view from up there was spectacular.

Our hotel was actually our own private bungalow, with a kitchenette and small living room. Nothing overly fancy, but it was nice to be on our own schedule. Would be a great place to bring a group of friends. The patio opened out  into a tropical jungle. There was a cacophony of sounds coming from the bugs and animals out there, but it was incredibly peaceful. I slept like a baby. The AC might have helped.
There was also no shortage of crazy flora. This palm thing sat on the ground and was 6 feet across. At least the plant life could be photographed. We tried to take a picture of the bat-size butterflies for about 20 minutes before we finally just gave up. Crazy freaks of nature wouldn't stay still.

Later in the afternoon we hiked down to the beach at Nakamoura, which the hotel owner told us was the best of the four beaches. For about $15, we each rented snorkel, mask and fins and headed into the clear blue water.

We saw a couple of classes worth of people learning to scuba dive. It seems like a really good place for it. As it was, just snorkeling was perfectly enjoyable for us. We saw a big variety of fish that were totally unafraid and would come right up to you, lots of beautiful coral, an eel and even some pufferfish!

Despite this being a 3-day weekend, we had the beach almost to ourselves.

That night we went to the new restaurant on the island, which was opened up by a martial arts instructor (his studio is next door). The place was decorated with blades and throwing stars and it served the best okonomiyaki we have ever had!  On the walk back to our bungalow we got some ice cream cones and looked up at the stars. This far away from the Tokyo lights, you could actually see the milky way and tons of constellations. A pretty amazing trip all and all.