Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ramune

This is just a quick post. I have LOTS to write about at another time.

My friend Noelle sent me an email asking about this Japanese drink called Ramune. It's got a funky bottle and closure system involving a marble. So she was all, "you have to try it and tell me if it's all true!" So I did!

My friend Sonja and I were in Nikko last weekend checking out some World Heritage sites when we came across a little ice cream shop. There was a little kid outside drinking something with a marble in it and I had to have one.
Here's an extremely self-conscious "oh no we're such tourists" video. I hope you appreciate it.

video

I had no trouble drinking it, except that I happened to see a local microbrew (not so common in Japan) next to it in the cooler so I bought both. They weren't exactly complementary. However, Ramune is sugary, vaguely fruity and altogether fine :)
I wish I could say something similar for the "Nikko" brew... The Ramune was $1.50 and the beer was $8.00....

Sadly, the Japanese woman I bought the drink from would not let me take it out of the store with me. There must be a serious deposit on the bottle!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Snow Monkeys!

Guess who's running behind... again? still? I'm actually surprised I'm still doing this. A nap sounds so much better than writing right now.
Anyway, this post is for the weekend of 3/29 when Will, the Rascal, and I went on an MWR tour to see Japanese Snow Monkeys.
First I should talk about our new Friday evening activity. At 6:30 every Friday night Will and I attend a conversational Japanese class here in Yokosuka that is taught by one of our Go instructors. His English is not great and the problem is compounded by the fact that, being engineers, Will and I ask (apparently) really hard questions, frequently frustrating him. Who here knows what a "particle" is? They're used in just about every sentence in Japanese language, but I certainly don't remember having a shape for them when diagramming sentences back in middle school.
The other really confusing thing is counting in Japanese. They have a different way of counting depending on what it is you're counting. In other words, there are more ways to count than you can count. Ok, so it's actually really interesting, but I'm going to move on.

The snow monkey tour (and actually all MWR tours) leaves really early in the morning - like 4AM early. So the Rascal braved the rush hour trains to come down to Yokosuka for the night to get up early for the tour. I really hate getting up early, but we managed to make it just in time for the bus and tried to sleep for the 5 hour ride to Jigoku-Dani in the Nagano Prefecture, nestled in the Japanese Alps a little north of Mt. Fuji. Luckily we stopped a couple times on the way and at the last stop I fueled up on some sweet Mt. Rainier Caffe Latte.

We reached our destination around 8AM and got out for the 30min hike. I really had no idea what to expect, except that I'd heard you get to watch snow monkeys bathing and you might get muddy.












After hiking past lots of cedar trees, neat cliffs and waterfalls, we reached the entrance to the park.



Climbing these stairs we rounded a corner and suddenly the tour guide starts freaking out, "I looked him in the eye!!" as I look up to see a monkey feint at her.
I'm starting to wonder what I've gotten myself into as a whole parade of monkeys comes out from behind a shed, right in front of our group. We all stop to watch them pass, frantically snap pictures of our first encounter, and hesitantly move on.


Continuing along the trail we pass a small cluster of houses on the other side of the stream we've been following and I look over to see a scene straight out of a movie with monkeys climbing all over the rooftops!

I suppose it's better than rats....


After a few more close encounters we finally come to the main attraction: a hot spring with an entire (herd, pack, gaggle?) of monkeys bathing.


























Looks pretty nice, huh?


We spent at least an hour watching the monkeys... uh... monkey around. Pretty cute. I think I have about 75 pictures of monkeys and some video.
















Markus loves him some monkeys.



















Here's a gratuitous pic of me, wishing I could hop in and join the fun.




On the way back, I didn't see it, but a local (and by that I mean a Japanese person as opposed to a gaijin) got into a fight with a monkey. I missed it, but both Will and the Rascal were witnesses. Apparently this little guy wanted the poor lady's walking stick. She was feisty though and was eventually able to shake him off.

















Despite our now vast experience being up close and personal with monkeys taking a bath, the Rascal and I are still a bit cautious in getting too close. You don't want to accidentally catch his eyes!!








And, of course, the obligatory monkey pictures!






































Next stop on the tour is Matsumoto castle. Originally built in 1504, it's the oldest in Japan. Will snapped this nice picture showing the gardens which I'm sure are impressive in spring/summer.


It's surrounded on all sides by a pretty impressive moat and has all your standard castle defenses like little windows to stick your bow&arrow or gun muzzle out of and special trap doors for dropping boulders or boiling oil on your invading enemies as they try to scale the castle walls.



In order to tour the castle we had to take off our shoes. They give you these nice slippers which didn't fit any of our feet and a plastic bag to carry your shoes around in.

The castle was definitely cool. I could envision being a ninja, running around this thing judo-chopping bad-guys, defending my territorah! It also looked like a good place to meditate. You know, if I was into that sort of thing.















You can't see it, but this guy has a vicious looking 'stache.



Seriously, the castle was pretty impressive, as in I could never build something like it, but I was a lot more impressed by the cathedrals and castles of Europe, built around the same time. I'm sure Japanese food was way better though ;)















The next day Will and I went with a co-worker to Tokyo to catch some Hanami action. Hanami is the act of participating in Sakura Matsuri, which is the festival of the cherry blossoms. I'm very fortunate to be here right now during the cherry blossom season. Tourists often plan their entire trip around Hanami as it is the most beautiful time of year in Japan.
Hanami is basically a picnic under the cherry blossoms. The Japanese people come out IN FORCE for this event. We went to Ueno Park in Tokyo and even though it was about to rain, there were still tons of people there all spread out under the cherry trees. Walking down the path in the park was like being in Times Square. Except it smelled better.

That night Will and I rocked Korean BBQ for the first time. Chef Will forgot he wasn't at his backyard BBQ and went nuts, throwing all kinds of food on the grill. It started flaming up, causing the waiter to rush to our table, wide-eyed, and turn the flame down. Gaijin.....




This sort of thing would never fly in the States because some dude would try to see what fire tastes like and then sue the place for not telling him it's hot.
Of course maybe I'm completely ignorant and there are all kinds of restaurants with little hibachi grills built into your table in the US. Seriously, if we had this much trouble I hate to see what Billy-Bob can do.

That bowl of lettuce in the picture is Will's salad. It's a bowl of lettuce.












During the week we have lots of fun too. It's one of the reasons I'm so far behind in writing. One of my favorite places to go is Cha Ran Ka, the music place I've written about before. The acts don't vary much. One of my favorites is the Miyoshi Duo. I love her song selections and she's a great piano player to boot! Here's a pic of them playing my request, which they had never heard before, Naima by Coltrane:

It's usually just the piano and bass player, but they have a rotation of other people that play with them, from guitar, to flute, to Japanese lounger singer.


Also there's no shortage of great places to eat here in Yokosuka. We go out just about every night and there's almost always some crazy story to tell the next day at work. Here's a random sampling of food we've eaten:



The picture on the right is tenpura fish. The whole fish.











On the left is plain old sashimi.








Before:


After:

Japanse people are always trying to get you to eat crazy things. Here's Will eating the eyeball.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New Friends & The Real City That Never Sleeps

Well it looks like I’m starting to really fall behind. There’s so much to see and do here that I find it difficult to sit down and write. I hope everyone enjoys these posts! Luckily for you, they’re going to be shorter from now on. As the novelty begins to wear off (and the further I get behind), only the BEST of experiences will get recorded ☺ I’ve also started taking more pictures of food, so that should save me from having to spend so much time describing it ;) So, almost 2 weeks ago now on March 21….

TOKYO!
My new coworker Will and I have a similar fondness for adventure. I spent a couple nights last week trying to find a hotel and only last-minute on Friday afternoon was I lucky enough to book a room (due to cancellation) at the government hotel in Tokyo. This place is amazing. Will and I paid $79 for a humongous room, complete with 2 twin beds, a sofa-bed, walk-in closet, makeup table… seriously, THE WORKS!
It took some figuring out, but the train is now our servant. After watching several trains pass us, waiting for the express out of Yokosuka, we realized the directions given by the hotel assume that we’re traveling during peak rush hour – there IS no express train out of this station. So we jump on, only to crawl along, stopping at every stop until finally I happen to spot an express across the tracks. We make a mad dash for it and cruise the rest of the way to Tokyo in style.
Upon arrival in Tokyo we had the next challenge of finding the place. For all the amazing little conveniences the Japanese have thought of, they’re still lagging in a few areas. #1 pet peeve is obviously the hotel reservation system. I suppose it doesn’t help that I can’t read a lick of Kanji, but seriously, booking a hotel here is HARD. Number 2 on my list is the addressing system. Apparently buildings are numbered based on the neighborhood and the order in which they were built. So they really make no sense whatsoever and furthermore most aren’t labeled anyway. So businesses generally include a map of the location on their advertisements. I’ve even seen locals draw me maps when giving me restaurant suggestions, etc. #3 is the severe lack of trashcans. I will pay you $100 to find me a public trashcan in Tokyo. Someone told me that there was a bombing involving a trash can and so they simply did away with them all. Surprisingly there is absolutely no litter on the sidewalks/streets. I bet the city is saving a ton of money on trash collection… At any rate, I guess this would be a good time to talk about Japanese trash.
When I first got here I wondered how in the heck Japan dealt with all the trash. Everything is disposable. I RARELY use chopsticks that aren’t the disposable kind and everything you buy comes in plastic. These facts combined with the limited land available on this island were totally confusing. It turns out the Japanese people are SERIOUS about sorting their trash – in some cases I’ve seen up to 5 different bins. Whatever is combustible is incinerated and then recycling takes care of the majority of other items. I guess it must be expensive though because occasionally they will search my bag coming on to the base. Not so much for security, but to prevent the Japanese workers from sneaking in their trash!


OK, back to Tokyo. So Will and I check into our plush 5-star hotel room and grab a quick nap before dinner. Markus (who has now come to be known as “The Rascal”) had invited us to a cocktail party hosted by a modeling agency and we agreed to meet up beforehand for dinner. Since this is Markus’ hood we asked him for a good place to meet up and get some dinner. The place he takes us is a really nice izakaya, the kind where you have to take your shoes off almost before you even step inside. The Japanese have a saying that I will paraphrase: Japanese people gracefully slide off their shoes and step backward onto the tatami mat while foreigners fumble and stumble their way through. Markus and Will are still new to the game so they actually bring their shoes to the table with them. OH NO! :P You’re supposed to leave them in the cubby by the door.
Anyway, it’s packed so we find 3 chairs/stools at the counter and are immediately handed the gaijin menu. This is a yakitori place where the meats are layed out in front of you and you can actually watch them cooking it up. To the left you can see the rows of meats and to the right you can see the excellent selection of sake.














On the menu they have everything you can think of. Among those I can remember: pork, chicken, beef, liver, neck part, eggplant, zucchini, intestine, beans, skin, heart, and horse meat sashimi. I couldn’t think of a body part that you couldn’t get on a stick. The experience turned out to be a ton of fun as we tried all kinds of different things and asked the people sitting next to us for recommendations. Some we took and others we didn’t.

The best recommendation was the sake. Somehow we got across “top shelf” and were given sake masu, which is a glass of sake in a little box. The sake is poured into the glass so that it overflows into the box and at this particular place they even overflowed the box onto the counter! Now, I’m no sake expert, but it was darn good. We shared the box with our neighbors since they were so friendly. Here’s Markus raising the box. KAMPAI!




As is typical in Japan, the entire restaurant seems to turn to see you off when you leave. With much bowing and “arigato’s,” the host laid out our shoes for us and we were off to the model party.
Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the model party. It was quite the swanky affair where we talked to various foreigners living in Japan. English, German, French, Spanish, Israeli, and Indian to name a few. There was a DJ and expensive (normally priced for Tokyo) cocktails and the place was packed. After a bit we decided to move on and check out the clubbing scene.
There is very little difference between the club that we went to and the ones I’ve been to in the states. Except perhaps that you can stay out waaay too late. We were in the Roppongi area of Tokyo, which is basically where all the foreigners hang out so this view may be a little skewed. Regardless, clubbing is not usually my scene, but we had fun anyway. Here’s a shot of Will gettin’ down with the locals, one of the very few pictures I have from the evening.




The next morning, at Markus’ insistence, we checked out the famous Tokyo fish market, Tsukiji. If you think Seattle has a great fish market you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This place is HUGE and NUTS. There are little trucks driving around, darting every which way and you have to be on your guard lest you get run over by one carrying a 200lb tuna.
So this market is apparently one of the biggest in the world. Fish comes in from all over the world to feed the insatiable Japanese appetite for the fresh stuff. Here’s a (bad) shot of the auctioning that takes place. If you’ll notice, each fish has its tail cut off. This is so that the buyers can go around and smell/taste it in order to decide how much to bid. These guys are SERIOUS about their maguro!

More random fish shots.















And the best part… The freshest sushi I have ever eaten. I’m glad I have a picture because I can’t possibly describe how good it was. Cold fish flesh that literally melts in your mouth? Good? OH YES. I’m ruined on sushi in the States now, I’m sure of it. Or anywhere else in the world for that matter. As I understand it, the best fish from all over the world is brought to Japan because this is where they’ll get the best price. Sorry NYC and LA, Paris, London, Hong Kong.



That day we were reveling in the amazing weather and just bummed around Tokyo. We took more trains and walked more miles than I can count. Here are Will and I after exploring the Imperial Palace.

All the signs here are in Japanese, so I don’t have a lot of info for you. It’s where the emperor lives and I’m sure it’s gorgeous in the spring. There’s a moat, a stone wall, some gardens… I was disappointed that you really couldn’t ever see the royal residence. This place will be really beautiful in the spring when everything is in bloom.














No more pics of Tokyo, but one highlight was the crazy electronics store, Yodobashi, in the Akihabara electronics (nerd) district. I bought a bunch of accessories for my ipod that for some reason I can’t get in the states. The second highlight was the yakitori restaurant we went to for dinner. We couldn’t read anything, nor could the staff understand a word we said. We ended up with the “assortment” of meats on a stick. I think it ruined Will’s taste for pork yakitori. I don’t know what mine was and I don’t want to know. We were exhausted from the early morning and the day of urban hiking so we called it a night in favor of getting up early Sunday to get out of town and go see a temple.
I had no idea where we were going, but Markus had picked this out as a fun day trip he wanted to do. Takaosanguchi.
There were about 7 different ways you could get to the top of the mountain and along the trail were various shrines, temples, etc. Also lots of vending machines and little restaurants. Will and I had packed light for the weekend, but we still had our bags pretty full, especially after the Akihabara electronics shopping spree, so we hiked up some serious inclines wearing jeans and messenger bags. We didn’t find out until we reached the bottom on the return trip that there were lockers we could have rented for 2 bucks. DOH!


We picked the “pilgrim’s route” on the way up, which was a wide and paved path that was also pretty busy. We kept seeing these crazy monkey signs. I’d like to hear some comments on what in the heck you think they’re trying to say. One monkey looks a little daft and the other looks slightly intimidating. They’re both cartoons though, so what harm could really come?
After seeing probably ten of these things we come to the monkey viewing center! Oh boy! Markus got really excited and so we all paid 400yen to go watch the monkeys run around and listen to this guy talk non-stop. Of course we have no idea what he’s saying, but, just like at Yodobashi, the voice didn’t stop.
On the way out we found the monkey gallery and did our best to blend in.













Once reaching the top the view was pretty amazing, although hazy. Which I can imagine is pretty standard considering the size of the megalopolis that is Tokyo. The pictures didn’t come out well so I didn’t waste the time posting them.



Somehow along the way we learned that the local specialty is soba noodles so we had some lunch in the sun at the top and then headed down.





The path we chose for the way down was more like a real hiking trail, with lots of exposed tree roots, streams, and other obstacles to navigate. We saw waterfalls and what must have been monks’ living quarters and also got our shoes and pants extremely muddy.
Finally we found the train station and settled in for the long ride back to Yokosuka. Let me tell you. This was one exhausting weekend. Almost two weeks later and I feel like I’m still recovering. Until next time!