Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kanetsu Ekiben

Not, considering I've read Edward Said and (since the last time I updated this blog) passed two real and chilly winters here without such unimaginable conveniences as insulation and the 24-hour ATM, that I've ever had much reason to believe in the hyper-modern fantasy Japan we were all promised back when Walkmans, Laserdisc, and Tamagotchi pointed the way to inexorable world domination, but in a Japanese 2015 where my household robot is a sexless, American-made hockey puck, I burn lamp-oil for warmth, Chiba City is a safe bedroom community where the sky is never the color of television, and of all things, I send handwritten faxes, it's nice, occasionally, to still see a glimpse of the great Japanese techno-utopia that never really was.

Yes readers-- this evening, feeling peckish as I fought my way through the vast and teeming crowds of Tokyo Station, on the way to transfer between two gleaming bullet-trains,  I remembered there was something here I had always wanted to try for dinner. I activated my pocket terminal, a six-inch slice of glowing silicon, armorglass and thermoplastics. With a practiced fingerswipe, I called up its built-in moving-map software. In an instant, a thumbnail-sized Korean microchip came to life inside the "smartphone"'s aluminum chassis, alive to dozens of infinitesimally faint signals emitted from satellites spinning 12,000 miles above my head, cross-referencing themselves with each other, and with the mapped coordinates of the nearest transmission stations of the wireless info-net to determine my three-dimensional position to the meter. Keying without breaking stride, I entered 「加熱式 駅弁 東京駅」into the terminal command prompt and stabbed at the 検索 "search" button, spitting a digitally enciphered burst transmission at an unseen server mainframe many miles away. The slim screen filled with a slashing rain of kanji as the query splashed out across the data sea of cyberspace. Too many choices-- pull in closer to the buzzing hive or you'll burn yourself out, cowboy. The map juddered imperceptibly as the magnification ticked inward to the 30m/cm scale. And there-- across the thrumming concourse-- there it was. A packed shop humming with patrons. There was biz here. Biz-- and bento. Just what I was looking for. I selected a paper-wrapped styrofoam lozenge and a bottled soda and paid the cashier, a harried-looking girl in a filtermask and uniform kerchief, with crisp, smooth yen.

Moments later I was boarding the gleaming shinkansen, luggage in one hand, plastic bag in the other. As the conductors bowed us out of the station and we purred away northward from the megalopolis, I opened my pack and extracted the bento... 

Back to reality, this is a fancier, nay, technologically advanced, variation on the well-known 駅弁/ ekiben train lunch box and a minor item on my Tokyo bucket list for some time-- an instantly self-heating bento. As fantasy-Japanese as giant robots and car phones that can also send email, these aren't quite as ubiquitous, and a damnsight pricier (with drink this thing cost almost 2000 yen!) as regular bento, but the gee-whiz factor is impossible to ignore. 
Although the things come in varieties ranging from soup to barbecue-eel, this particular model is a mushroom 炊き込みご飯 takikomi-gohan -- the Japanese take on rice pilaf. The name 「茸くらべ 」"Takekurabe", lit. "Comparing Mushrooms" puns on the well-known story 「たけくらべ」"Takekurabe", lit. "Comparing Heights",  a depressing novella (1) by Meiji period female author Higuchi Ichiyo(2). Excitingly, the mushrooms to compare are two varieties of the uncommonly rare and delicious matsutake!

Removing the outer wrapper... 

... One immediately notices a dangling string protruding from a hole in the styrofoam container: 

This, according to the directions, is the ripcord for the built-in flameless chemical heater that warms the bento to edible temperature. 

A gentle tug on the string and, with a sudden pop and an instant rumble of boiling, steam begins to rise from the container. And, after only a few moments... 

Steaming hot, delicious matsutake-gohan. The heating element continues to burn while I finish taking the mushroom challenge, keeping the rice piping hot.

After dinner I take a quick peek inside at the inner workings. Underneath the interior food tray...

... Is the heater, whose label charmingly notes that because it is comprised of quicklime and water, it can be used to fertilize a gardening-minded traveler's plants (!) 

Not this traveler, unfortunately... 

Isn't modern life grand? 

(1) It's about kids growing up in the Yoshiwara licensed prostitution quarter. Interested parties may read a somewhat superannuated translation by Edward Seidensticker. 

(2)  The current face of the 5,000 yen bill. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent in Akita

The things I do for my students... Oh, my aching scissor-fingers! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lakes and Snakes

I love it when a plan doesn't quite come together, sometimes. Kenny and Stephanie and I had planned on joining in on a waterskiing trip nearby ALT Derek had put together for Saturday, when...

Yeah, no. 
... the weather intervened. Fortunately, it didn't take long to put a backup plan together:

And so, rain or no, up the coast we sped, in search of interest-- Kenny, his girlfriend Fumie, Stephanie, and me.

 We spun past Noshiro and Happō-cho on the western coast, another pocket of familiar territory from my time at AIU. I easily picked out the training center where I stayed with the Aikido Club, a roadside stand where I had sweet-potato flavored soft-serve, and the turnoff to the shrine where we trained, kung-fu movie training montage style, under an ice-cold waterfall (and, amazingly, forgot completely to blog!):

The coastline from afar on a much nicer day (July 2011)

And closer in...

The mountain shrine, where we were blessed in preparation for our training...

And the sacred waterfall-- spring-fed and very, very cold.
No shortage of sharp rocks, either-- most character building!



Good times with weapons, we might say.

Just over the border into Aomori, Fumie nudged Kenny. <Oh, that's the turnoff for Juniko! Have you been there, Kenny? I went there with my school once-- it's really pretty!>  "A what, love? Lakes? (1) OK!" Good enough for us all. We turned off the main highway and up a windy mountain road, huge beeches and cryptomeria whipping past as Kenny, for whom the best part of a "road trip" was clearly the speedy driving, did his best to fling his mild-mannered Camry through the curves.

<Stop here! It's not too much further to Aoike! It's the prettiest one.> said Fumie. We pulled over, hopped out and started up the road.

<Hmm, I'm not sure this is where we stopped when I came with the school-- we parked up further over here, I think...> Fumie said as we walked uphill from the car. <Well, the sign says it's not too much further to the trail>, I said, looking back-- and paused just in time as I caught something out of the corner of my eye. "WHOA, IS THAT A--?" 

It was, indeed a snake, less than a meter away, lying still enough to be dead. It looked awful familiar from an outdoor safety poster at one of my schools...

<Yikes, look at its head-- that looks like a viper. Fumie, is that one of the poisonous ones?> --<I can't remember! Is it alive?> "I don't want to find out... I'm sure that guy's poisonous." "Stephanie, does that look poisonous to you?", asked Kenny. "Doesn't look like any of the ones we've got"... (2)

We skirted the snake and moved on, turning into the forest proper... and a short hike later: 

Despite the name, I was still expecting Aoike ("Blue Pond") to be a little larger-- but it sure was as blue as advertised-- a shockingly bright azure. <No one knows why it's that color> said Fumie. <Has to be how clear the water is, I guess. There's fish in it, so probably it's not dissolved metal...> 

We paused to take a photo on Fumie's iPhone. 

No stranger to iPhone filters is Fumie, clearly.
We walked back to the car without further herpetological incident. 

"Let's head up the coast a little further-- there's a really cool spot in a town up here somewhere", said Kenny. 

We drove further northwards as the sun sank slowly, passing rocky harbors filled with moored squid longliners.

"Which town was it...Ah, here it is-- the big rock out there", said Kenny, after an interval. "Let's go, guys!" 

We'd stopped next to a bus stop labeled "Ōiwa-mae" (In front of the Big Rock)-- and wouldn't you know it, there was indeed a big rock-- a craggy islet in a rock-bottomed bay with a conveniently paved path leading to it. 

Like so. Click to ludicrously embiggen.
It wasn't just a path up to the rock, as it turned out-- the town had helpfully dynamited a set of loose, slippery stairs through the middle of the rock.

We reached the top of the rock with the beginnings of a lovely sunset developing over the sea-- and mother seagulls we'd accidentally flushed from their nests wheeling around our heads. We took our pictures...
Pardon the interruption, ma'am. 
 ... and headed homewards once again.

(1) Juniko=十二湖="12 Lakes". I later read that there are closer to 39 but, after all, "Sanjukyuuko" doesn't have the same ring...

(2) It was what I thought it was-- the Japanese mamushi, one of two poisonous snakes in the archipelago. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japanese-Style Driving

They'll have my blogger's license if I have the temerity to describe events that happened a month ago as "recent", but you'll have to excuse me-- the Board of Education's been getting more than its money's worth now that school has restarted in a real sense.

Since we spoke last there's been a lot to cover-- for one thing, the continuing saga of Drivers' License Conversion.

We left off after the first stage of this process, in which the officials of the Akita Drivers' License Center   eagerly sought the answers to important questions, like whether or not I'd ever driven a Toyota, before letting my license conversion application proceed to the practical test stage.

Reservation in hand, I took time off on a weekday to return to the Akita Drivers' Center for a run at the practical driving test, making sure to arrive well within the 30-minute window from 8:30 to 9 during which all applications for the day must be submitted. Forewarned is forearmed: the process went about as well as I'd been led to expect by the usual JET-run expat advice sites...

(Center employee vigorously attempts to pantomime the act of reading): THIS... FOREIGNER... INSTRUCTIONS...! YOU... READ?

One of the daily-varying permutations of the driving course, which you're required to memorize turn-by-turn before taking the test. Surprising fact: the course for license-converting foreigners is longer and more complex than all of the others, including the ones for tractor-trailers and construction vehicles.  

...which is to say that after an exciting half-day of having a mountain of expensive paperwork rubber-stamped by the same gang of bored jobsworths that processed my initial application, the authorities called forth from the lower circles a thick man with a thinning crewcut and a Kim-Jong-il jumpsuit to watch me drive a retired taxi carefully round an enclosed track and find fault with my mirror adjustment.

The final result?

 Examiner: <... And pull up to the line there, uh, I mean....> "RA'IN... SUTOPPU, NEH?"

Me: <All right, to line 6, right?>

Examiner: "...YESSU...OK.... ENJIN... SUTOPPU?"

Me: <All right.>

The examiner leans across the seat towards me, clipboard in hand. He's uncomfortably close in the car. It smells like he had a XXL shrimp Cup Noodle and a half-pack of Mild Sevens for lunch.

Examiner: "YESSU...."

Me: --


Me: <Well, yes-->

Examiner: <All right. Well, let's see. As for your performance on the test, a few words. First. Here in Japan, we always make sure other cars can see us when we're making turns. So maybe 100 meters away from the corner, we always put on our turn signals [Japanese/German:winker] and make sure other cars can see us. You're putting yours on maybe 50 meters away. Very American to just turn without asking! So first, make sure to ask [Japanese-English appeal] to turn corners.> "APIIRU! APIIRU! WINKA APIIRU! PURIIZU?"

Me: [Recalling the Japanese folks I saw making unsignalled turns that very morning] <I'm terribly sorry. I must have forgotten where I was turning while trying to remember the course!>

Examiner: <Oh, and another thing. When we turn right on two-lane roads, we change lanes to the right lane. It's called a "turning lane." You missed the turning lane here... (pointing to a one-lane intersection on the map) ... and here (a section of the course where the road narrows to less than a single lane). Two times!>

Me: <There was a turning lane there? I'm so sorry!>

Examiner: <Yes. And make sure not just to look in all three mirrors but over both shoulders before and while making a turn.>

Me: <Both shoulders? While turning the corner?>

Examiner: <Yes.>

Me: <I see...>

Examiner: <So, I'm sorry to say, but I can't pass you this afternoon. You'll need to reschedule for a later date and pay the testing fee again. That's Window 50 inside the main building. Window 50. 50. Do you understand? 50!>

Me: <Yes-- Window 50 is the one labeled "Foreign License Conversion" in big characters, yes?>

Examiner: <Window 50... "FIFUCHII!">

Me: <I suppose I'll be back soon. Thanks very much!>

Examiner: <...>

The examiner pauses as if about to say something, but catches himself short, his face frozen between expressions. What on earth is he doing? He's not waiting for me to say something, but the conversation clearly isn't over. The moment begins to stretch uncomfortably. What can he possibly be trying so intently to say? You can almost feel him searching around for the appropriate gear inside his head. A ten-to-twelve second slice of eternity crawls by.

Examiner: "SOU...


His expression glows with self-satisfaction.

Me: <I see. You know, that's great English!>

Back to square one it was-- and so it came to pass that I found myself taking the road test some weeks later. I'd been alone on the road on my first outing, but this time the course rumbled under the wheels of  immense strip-mining front-loaders driven by nervous-looking testees being watched by still-more nervous examiners. This time the result was different:

Examiner: "OK".

Me: <Does that mean I passed?>

Examiner: "OK".

 Did the immense machines distract my ride-along from my "American" signalling? I didn't stick around long enough to find out!

Victory! And well under the JET average of 3+ tries! 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cooking With David*

Got back to school after Spring Break to find that I wasn't "officially" scheduled to actually teach for another couple of days. Good thing I had pictures of the tarte Tatin I had cooked a few days back...

Here I replicate the slightly weird method of the original recipe I used. At least it's easier to explain than the usual "saute' the apples in melted butter mixed with sugar" approach. 

The final result in place. At time of writing, I saw at least one kid diligently copying down the instructions for later reference. English Teacherman's  work here is done, ladies and gentlemen! 
*But of course, the title of this post is a reference to the offbeat Cooking With Dog series of Youtube videos! Here, have a link:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Here's the control panel of the treadmill at my "local" (45 min away) gym-- which, apart from demonstrating that I don't exercise enough, also shows off its charming "game" feature: displaying your calories burned as various Japanese foods and drinks-- many of them, not surprisingly, drinking party fare ("1 glass of beer", "1 shochu highball", "one plate of sashimi", etc) Can't but help thinking that their estimate here for tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) is a little lean-- or should I say, the machine is telling porkies?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Here in the land of Vending Machines, one need never go thirsty. Even if your run has left you in need of a HYBRID ENERGY DRINK that has been heavily SCIENCED!