Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pizza should not be eaten with chopsticks...

And yet, there I was last night, chowing down on Modern`s Salmon Pizza with what? Chopsticks of course... Admittedly, the pizza's shape and cut was not conducive (how's that for vocab Matto?) to eating with your hands.... Gotta love Modern, 5 drinks and dinner for less than 4000 yen, can't be beat!

Today is October 1st, which is quite surprising since it seems like just yesterday we were still in the oppressive heat of August. Time sure does fly around here. My mother arrives one week from today, and I will be all like married and stuff 13 days from now which is cool.

Heading out shortly for a BBQ at Mieko's place with Matt, Tomoko, Isao and friends, should be a nice day even though it is looking kind of overcast at the moment. Not sure what's up for tomorrow, may have some pics to post... we shall see.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Exploring Kichijoji

What a fabulous day we had. Hopped on an early morning train out of Utsunomiya and into the relatively tame streets of Ueno, practically deserted compared to the weekends. The atmosphere when wandering the street of Ameyayokocho probably makes it one of my favourite places to bum around, at least for a short time. Today's mission was to find a pair of shoes that fit, and in the second shoe store we went into, success! And not expensive either, which is always a bonus.

I find myself sometimes taking the same picture that I have before. This marinated octopus tentacle is just so vividly red, I hope it's not the same one that was there when I went in April.

Ameyoko is a great little area with a market feel to it. You'll find all kinds of stuff from Skippy Peanut Butter to lentils and fresh fruit.

After picking up a few needed cooking supplies for Matto, we hopped on the Yamanote line to Shibuya to meet Alex, whom I hadn't seen since he left Utsunomiya many moons ago. It was great to see him again! Things just haven't been the same since the days of the 3 musketeers living the high life and hitting Kegon for cigars and drinks... After a quick pit stop at the Mac store for Matt, we headed down to Kichijoji, and area of Tokyo I had never been in, but one of Alex's favourite haunts. One of the things Alex has a passion about is FOOD. Spend a day with the guy in Tokyo and you WILL eat well. Our first stop in Kichijoji was the Village Vanguard Diner for some really great burgers and onion rings.

Now, I haven't had a hamburger since Kua Aina in Odaiba back in April. Needless to say, the wait was worth every scrumptious bite into this bacon cheeseburger. Yum!

After lunch, we headed on out to wander the streets again in the general direction of Inokashira park. Kichijoji is a really interesting area filled with shops and restaurants and cafes and such, kind of like Tokyo's Greenwich Village. The crowd is more mature than say, Shibuya, and the feel is quite nice.

One thing which caught our eye was this blatant caricature of a black person, complete with fat red lips, something which would draw violent protests from anti-racism groups who may burn down the offending shop, which would then cause riots by anti-violence groups in a never ending cycle of indignation. Here, it seems to just "be". This reminds me of the story of Little Black Sambo and it's resurgence in popularity here.

We did eventually make it into the park, which looks like it must be amazing during Cherry Blossom season. The pond is filled with some pretty damn big carp, as you can see here by comparing the back end of the orange one passing underneath this duck... pretty brave ducks if you ask me, especially the babies...

In the middle of the park is a great Asian cafe where we ordered some Vietnamese drip coffee and some great bread pudding. What a way to kill an afternoon!

We eventually did make it out of the cafe and I helped Alex fiddle with his camera a bit. Here's the man taking a picture of a flower, how cute!

I did the same of course, but didn't come out with a good one. As we continued walking around the park we encountered a few artisans selling their stuff along with a violinist doing his\her (hard to tell) thing. The highlight of the park visit was this street performer who is apparently here every day. He seems to have his little crowd of regulars as there were people sprawled out on the ground with snacks and sake watching him play. I got a couple of good shots of him doing his thing as people walked by, thought it was a cool effect, kind of life passing by as he plays his music.

After listening to him for a bit, we continued walking and eventually made our way to the station to hop on the train headed North. Had a fantastic day with the Lambert-meister and Matto the Natto.... and unfortunately that just about does it for this long weekend.

Back to work tomorrow, only 2 weeks until my mother visits and 3 weeks before the wedding. I think many people tend to start freaking out at about this point, but I ain't which is good.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Deep afield, and on the national news!

Yesterday, we spent a fabulous day exploring the depths of the mountains North of Tochigi, and ended the day witnessing a bee attack that made it on the national news!!! First things first though...

We started the day with a quick breakfast at home before heading out around 9AM. As we stepped out the door, we were greeted with the majestic Nantai-san (I will forever curse Japan's overabundance of above ground power lines), putting in an appearance and showing us we had a great day ahead of us. Also got a nice profile of a pigeon resting on my neighbour's antenna.

The plan was to head into the Northwestern most area of Tochigi Prefecture, bordering on Gunma and Fukushima prefectures, in search of what proved to be the elusive Heike Village which I learned about from this site. We never did end up finding the actual village, but we couldn't have been very far since we found both the waterfalls and the geyser noted in the site. Oh well!

As we headed past Imaichi and into unknown territory, the road took a turn for the curvy and we ended up driving the rest of the way up winding mountain roads with dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. This is a panorama of 5 pictures I took when we stopped on the side of the road.

Our first stop was Oozasa farm, where I was told we would find some of the best soft ice cream in the country, made from fresh milk from the farm. I wasn't disappointed, it was fantastically creamy and won!derful! And the pasture area has quite the view as well.

Since we were there, we took the opportunity to bum around the farm a bit and perform a quick meet & greet with the animals.

This goat seemed quite proud to show off his dental work, this shot has made me laugh innumerable times throughout the day as I flipped through my pictures and landed on this one!

After a quick look at the map, we decided the area of Heike village was within striking distance and set off again into the hills. To say we were deep afield at this point is no exaggeration. Only one road leading in, branching off into smaller and smaller roads, precipices on alternating sides of the car, the drive is almost worth the trip in itself! We did a quick pit stop to admire Jao Falls, after making our way down a series of treacherous steps.

While you sometimes have to close your eyes to certain aspects when visiting Japanese nature (ie. the 30 centimeters of water where there used to be 10 meters) you do find some surprises along the way. In this case, a segment of the Kinu river which is concreteless... Here are the falls, with the sunlight reflecting harshly in my lens... hadn't brought the lens hood along... shoulda.

We eventually made it up to Kuwamoto Lake where we took a quick break.

Not much further up the road, we stopped for a quick lunch at a VERY rural restaurant.

How rural? There were pictures of the owner gutting and butchering deer and bear on the walls and the menu contained such interesting dishes as Shika Katsudon (deer) and Kuma Ramen (bear) but that wasn't the end of it! When asking for our order, the woman said: "What do you want?" instead of the much more polite variations we're used to in the big city! The horror! After finding out the deer katsudon wasn't available, I settled on mountain mushroom soba, nothing too exciting but we did witness people at the table next to us try roasted salamander on a stick to the giggles and sounds of disgust of their friends. Out front were a series of meat-on-a -stick concoctions I would have tried were they not sitting in the sun for most of the day.

Duck, Deer, Bear and others (including the salamander) were up to be fried on the grill here, but I passed.

As we neared the end of this mountain road, we did manage to find Heike Onsen, but no sign of the historically recreated Heike Village where a clan of warriors escaped to after losing a battle some 800 years ago. We did manage to find the geyser mentioned on the web site and played with dragonflies until she decided to blow for us. This reminds me of a conversation Yoshiko and I keep having when we travel. Things just kind of work out for us wherever we go. Train cancelled by bad weather? another option puts us in at the same time. Get lost down some forsaken forest road? Find a quaint place to take a rest. In this case, we had turned down a road thinking it would take us to Nikko, but were not reassured by the condition the road was in and decided to turn around to double-check the road signs. As we confirmed it was in fact the road to take, Yoshiko caught a glimpse of the sign for the geyser which we knew was in the area and we stopped by the side of the road to check it out. The sign which times the geyser's spray was out of order, so we ended up having a quick snack which we waited for it. Others came and went after spending a few minutes, but when the geyser finally blew, we were alone. We click and complement each other very nicely, I guess that's why I'll be making her my wife in a few weeks!

We then headed back down the mountain road which linked this area to Senjogahara and Lake Chuzenji from where Utsunomiya is just a quick jaunt. Along the way, I noticed a car stopped up ahead and saw a large animal bounding across the road. When I said: "Monkey!", Yoshiko didn't believe me and said it was too big... must be a dog. Turns out I was right, that was one big monkey! Turns out the area was practically crawling with them, we spotted a few more groups as we made our way down the mountain. These guys were afraid of people, must not see too many out here. The first thing Yoshiko did when she saw me open the window to take pictures was to hide the food and drinks... the ones in Nikko are very aggressive and will come right into your car to snatch things from you. All these little guys did was run away.

As we passed through Senjogahara, where we hiked a couple of weeks ago, we decided to pull in to a little gift shop\restaurant jobby next to the Koutoku picnic area. As we neared the parking lot, I happened to look out my window and saw the strangest thing. This old man was looking at me with wide eyes from the woods, his head and upper torso covered with a jacket. Having seen many drunk folks in many places, I didn't think too much of it until we noticed people swatting around their heads and running from the forest. After we had parked, it quickly became clear through the shouts of "hatchi! hatchi!" that someone had disturbed a nest and the inhabitants were less than pleased. A few people were on the ground, and the staff from the restaurant did their best to help, but anyone who got close would also get attacked. I would have gone in myself, but was wearing a short sleeved dark shirt and didn't have anything to protect my head with, I would have gotten eaten alive! What I can't understand is why the people stayed there and didn't try to get off the road and into the parking lot, presumably away from the nest. The police arrived within 5-10 minutes and this is the point where I got really perplexed. They drove right by 2-3 people who were on the ground and proceeded into the parking lot where they started to take down reports!

Forget about helping the people who are hurt or anything... dumb asses. One officer did head down towards the area of the attack armed with a clipboard and pen, but he made no attempt to get the people out of there. At the very least they should have gotten their rain suits to help protect the people or something... but it seems the paperwork is more important. After a while, the bees seemed to calm down and the injured were able to walk out into the parking lot with help from some other people. As we left, the ambulance was just coming in. We then proceeded home where, after stocking up on gyoza, we had a wonderful meal. While watching the news, we were surprised to hear a report on the bee attack on the national news. I'm often surprised at the news that makes it into a newscast out here, must be a slow news country. Seems the group which was attacked was a bunch of school teachers from Kanagawa Prefecture who were out with a tour guide for the day. Nobody was seriously injured, though they were taken to hospital to have stingers removed and stings treated. I think the reason this made such big news was that a woman was killed by bees in Nasu recently... not sure if they're more active this time of year or what... maybe just more people in the woods enjoying the cool weather.

Today was spent relaxing around the house and starting to plan our Vietnam section of the trip. We've reserved a hotel for the first few nights, and will probably make a decision for the rest once we're on the ground in Ho Chi Minh City. We did eventually leave the house for coffee and ended up at Round 1 Stadium, a game centre to kill a couple of hours. I had the upper hand at ping pong and pool but I got my ass kicked by Yoshiko at basketball, archery and Taeko drums. A fine day! The most intriguing game was an arcade version of arm wrestling where a machine applies increasing levels of force to a mechanical arm. Being the modest feller that I am, I selected the 5th hardest level, and beat it pretty easily. Noticing no one had beaten the top level yet, I bumped up the difficulty to the top and was able to beat the machine with some difficulty. The next challenger (level 1 plus?) was a bit tougher though, and we ended in a draw in our first round, and I had to cheat on the second cause my arm was about to give way. Flipping drill cards in a classroom sure doesn't prepare one for arm wrestling, let me tell you! To top off the weekend, we grabbed some subway and ate it at home, and now here I am at my home typing this up. And the best part is, there's one more day to go in the long weekend! Woohoo!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Trip is shaping up... and a surprise visitor

I am in the midst of ten million emails between myself, my Japanese travel agency and my Cambodian guide... it's quite confusing, but I seem to finally be getting a clear picture of our trip... at least the Cambodian half of it anyway... haven't looked at Vietnam much yet.

December 23rd
Depart Tokyo for Siem Reap, Cambodia with stops in Taipei and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Arrive Siem Reap, transfer to Princess Angkor Hotel.
December 24th
Private tour - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
Mandatory Gala dinner at the hotel
December 25th
Private tour - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
December 26th
Boat trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
Transfer to Juliana Hotel
Private tour - Phnom Penh
December 27th
Private tour - Phnom Penh
Evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
December 28th-December 31st
Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta
January 1st
Depart Ho Chi Minh City for Tokyo, with a stop in Taipei.

The second half of the trip will be mostly poking around the markets in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and hitting the top sights in town with a day trip out into the Mekong Delta. I'd like to have some clothes tailored, and Yoshiko is thinking about getting a Vietnamese style dress made up. Should be a fantastic trip!

In other news, my mother surprised and delighted us yesterday morning when she let me know she would be coming to Japan for the little wedding shindig we've got planned in a few weeks. She's booking her flight today, arriving on October the 8th and staying until the 16th. Quite the pleasant surprise! It'll be nice to spend a bit of time with her, though I am working that week. I've managed to get the Friday off, so I'll be able to spend 4 days with her, plus evenings and lunch breaks and such.

This weekend's plans are just beginning to shape up, with a Saturday off making it a 3 day weekend for me. We're thinking of making a run up to Keike Village, somewhere in North-Western Tochigi if we can find it. This village served as a refuge for a fugitive clan about a thousand years ago. I'm currently unsure as to the whole story, but it seems to be an interesting place to visit and is near Japan's highest marshland which we may tool around for a bit. Sunday will be spent making plans for my mother's visit and for the Vietnam end of our trip. And on Monday, Matto and I will head in to Tokyo for the day, hooking up with Alex for lunch somewhere. Hopefully I can find some shoes that fit, my quest for size 28-29 shoes in Utsunomiya has been in vain so far.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


I'll be the first to admit I wasn't all that thrilled to have to go in to Omiya today for the company's veterans teachers training, but doggone if I didn't come out of there with some good information. Reinforced a lot of the things I've already been doing, tweaked a couple more and learned the proper way to teach some specific things which hadn't been covered in the earlier trainings. It was also nice to meet up with some fellow teachers from all around, both foreign and Japanese, to chew the fat and compare notes on stuff. Not at all a bad day in the end, and I ended up right back at home at the same time I would on a normal Tuesday.

Also, I am pleased to report that I am quite pleased with the staff at the primary news website where I have been getting my Canadian news since I came to Japan. I was quite disconcerted last week when I was unable to get on to the web site any more. And after a week of trying, I decided to send an email to the webmaster at in a last ditch effort to figure out what was wrong. I did not actually expect a response... but surprisingly enough, I got one! Within a few hours, I was notified that they had shut out Asia due to a Denial of Service attack on their site but that they would work on getting Japan excluded from the block. After a few emails back and forth, my saviour, Bob Niven, emailed to let me know I should be able to get back on. And sure enough, I was... and just in time for the start of hockey season... woohoo!

Monday, September 18, 2006

A nutty weekend...

First of all, pardon the pun... but it was a nutty, as in nut filled, weekend...

Saturday night, I performed what has now become a tri-weekly bike ride up to Yoshiko's pad where I was greeted with a hot plate of linguini pasta complete with pumpkin. Pumpkin is an often used vegetable here in Japan, and though I may be wrong, Japanese kabocha is sweeter than the orange behemoths we sculpt into scary shapes back home. Before coming to Japan, I'd had pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin loaf.... but since coming here I've had pumpkin pasta, pumpkin tempura, pumpkin pudding.... all quite yummy!

Saturday morning, we headed out to Imaichi to visit my soon to be (26 days and counting) parents-in-law for lunch and to fill out the necessary paperwork for the registration of our marriage. Upon arrival, I noticed a pile of prickly looking balls under a tree, and recalled a comment Yoshiko's mother had made last week about the chestnuts starting to drop from the tree in their garden. Well, they most certainly have, at the rate of about one kilogram a day for the past week! They are dutifully picked and peeled from their prickly outer layer before being brought inside and boiled for consumption. Here's one fresh out of the pod...

Once inside, we were served plain boiled chestnuts as well as some boiled with sugar which sweeten them just a tad. Quite tasty little buggers. I also got to sample a freshly picked fig for the first time in my life, also from the bounty that is the Takahashi's garden. Quite yummy! We ended up heading out to the Soba Restaurant Yoshiko and I went to last year at about this time. Turns out that was the day our courtship officially began. While waiting for a table at this uber-popular soba place, we wandered around the grounds, visiting with Yoshiko's mother's former coworkers who brewed up some coffee for us. We also got to play around with some dragonflies, who seemed to take my balding head as some sort of dragon-helipad... We did finally manage to get a seat, and had some great soba. Due to our status as guests of a former staff member, we also got some warm konnyaku, served with sweet miso. I'm not a great fan of the ol' slab of konnyaku, but this was one of those occasions where you chow down and try not to make a face... lol There isn't really a taste per se, but I certainly don't enjoy the texture of this hardened potato jelly thing...

After lunch, we retreated back to chestnut land and cracked open Yoshiko's photo albums, something which we'll not be able to do after our departure from Japan. I think everybody enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and I made a bit of a contest at spotting Yoshiko and her mother in group pictures filled with kids in the same uniform wearing the same hats and making the same faces... I think I did pretty good, about 90% success rate. We then headed home for the evening where we chilled out with a couple of DVDs. This morning, I whipped up some banana pancakes and we headed in to the center of town to run some errands and check out HIS Travel for our Southeast Asia trip. I am quite disappointed in the shoes I purchased last May as they are already falling apart... and am having trouble finding shoes in my size of course. Anybody know a shoe store in Utsunomiya that sells shoes from size 29 and up??? Tonight, I had another helping of chestnuts, this time in the form of kuri gohan, or chestnut rice, which was delicious, served with Oden.

Heading in to the big city (or the outskirts of it at least) tomorrow for a training session. Not quite sure why they're bothering with me since I'll be leaving the company soon enough, but it's a nice break from the routine. This week will turn out to be a short one due to the school being closed for a holiday this Saturday which effectively eliminates our busiest day.

In other Japan news this week, a few items have been repeated multiple times on TV to the point that even I, who can barely understand a word they're saying, can grasp the whole story. Number 1 is: The Return of Gyudon to Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya is a Japanese fast-food joint that serves up fast and cheap Japanese meals. For the past couple of years, gyudon (beef on rice, in a bowl) has been off the menu due to the restrictions against US beef. With the recent lifting of the ban, gyudon returned to Yoshinoya menus today and the crowds were lined up out the doors for it. Outlets sold out of their meat stocks quickly and I'm sure many were turned away. Even our Yoshinoya here near Tobu had a lineup out the door. I'll never understand the idea of standing in line for hours outside a restaurant for a cheap bowl of meat and rice... but it seems the hype created by the news was a success.

Second is Typhoon number 13 which hit Kyushu a yesterday and has managed to kill 9 people so far through mudslides and a train derailment. We'll likely be feeling this bad boy for the remainder of the week in the form of rain and wind... but nothing to be worried about as it will quickly dissipate in the Sea of Japan. (or South China Sea, depending on your vantage point)

On another TV note, I watched one of the most stupidly amusing shows this evening... or maybe it was two shows. In the first, a comedian from Japan made his way to Iceland where, accompanied with the mandatory cutesy Japanese girl, he attempted to make shabu-shabu using the water from a geyser. Shabu-Shabu is a fondue-like meal where you dip thin slices of meat into heated broth to cook it. This moron was trying to do the same this using the frequent eruptions of 85 degree (celsius) water bursting from a geyser. After 4 attempts and 4 possibly serious sets of burns to his hands, feet and head, he did manage to get the meat cooked and chowed it down. Apparently, it was Umai. Shortly after this spectacular feat, cameras followed a high-heeled-screeching-with-fear woman into the bamboo forests of China where she proceeded to track down a panda, and collect it's fresh excrement for a smell test. Apparently, poop from pandas kept in captivity smells bad, while wild panda poop smells good. To prove it, she brought a sample back from China and everyone in the studio had a whiff, one man even saying it smelled like tea. You are what you eat and all that, I guess their diet in the wild is much greener than that in captivity.

As a parting shot, here's a picture I took last week of one of the last summer flowers. Soon enough the hills will be alive with colour.... and ski season is just a few months off... woohoo!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tragedy in Montreal

In the last few years, I've settled on Montreal as being my favourite city in the World. It's a city with a fantastic history, great architecture, a unique bilingual character and some of the best dining and entertainment I've ever seen. I've had some great times in Montreal, on family trips or with friends... or even on business visiting the OR head office. It is simply one of the World's great cities.

Unfortunately, for the second time in 20 years, Montreal has been the scene of another mass shooting at a college which has left one person dead, up to 20 injured and one monster put down by the police. A lone gunman started shooting inside a Dawson College cafeteria before heading back outside where he was shot by police. News photos show what is now described as the "body of the shooter" lying next to a police cruiser in a pool of blood. I am getting this information in bits and pieces, and my main source of information ( is unfortunately down, likely due to volume. Thank god this shooting wasn't nearly as bad as the 1989 massacre of 14 women at the Ecole Polythechnique when Lepine decided he didn't like women. My heart goes out to the victims and their families.

Things are going well here in Utsunomiya, though we're now officially into our 4th day of pretty much non-stop rain. The temperature has dropped significantly, currently hovering around 15 degrees as a high for the day, which is actually a nice change for us who have to wear suits to work. Not much planned for the next little while, though we have 3 national holidays coming up in the next few weeks. I have to head in to Omiya on Tuesday for training, so no teaching for me. I think it's kind of silly for them to waste time\resources training me, knowing fully that I am leaving the company soon (5 months, 7 days)... but hey, that's their prerogative, and I guess it's worthwhile since were expected to pass the knowledge on to the staff at the school. Luckily, I will be heading down with Yasuko-sensei, so it should make the ride down enjoyable.

In other news, Matsui, one of Japan's favourite baseball players, made quite the come back last night. After being out for 4 months after breaking his wrist in a fall, he returned to the NY Yankees lineup and proceed to get 4 hits in a 12-4 Yankees win. I'm not much of a baseball fan, but it's hard not to hear about it in baseball-crazy Japan! Luckily, the NHL season will start soon and I'll get to read about something interesting...

Monday, September 11, 2006


Five years later.

Watching the CNN footage from September 11th, 2001 brings it all back. Not to say that things have been forgotten, but watching the events of that devastating day happen in real-time again certainly makes you feel like you just stepped into a time machine and went back in.

The footage on CNN changes from coverage of a fashion show in New York, normal life, to video of the first tower on fire with smoke billowing from the top portion of the WTC, surreal. Reporters begin speculating on the causes of the accident, and after some time, a second plane is seen hitting the second tower live on CNN and the speculation ends. It finally starts to dawn on people that this is an attack. The resulting chaos, confusion and horrific interviews with witnesses only get worse as the towers begin to collapse and news comes of further attacks in Washington and a 4th plane crashing in Pennsylvannia. The cloud of smoke and dust hanging over Manhattan with the Statue of Liberty in the forefront, horrible.

Where were you 5 years ago today? I think that is a very common question when events of this scope occur. I remember it like it was yesterday. (to use the old cliche) I remember walking down the hallway near the morgue in the Ottawa Hospital's General Campus coming back from a support call when a coworker walking by mentioned something was going on in New York. I remember people huddling around TV screens throughout the building and watching in quiet shock as the events of the day unfolded. I remember the hospital announcing to the staff that we would be preparing for casualties from these attacks or from other possible attacks, casualties which thankfully never came.

On this solemn anniversary, we must not only remember those who lost their lives, but continue to band together against the extremists who would see our way of life destroyed. The overwhelming feelings which comes from these events is anger. Anger at people so hypocritical as to condemn our way of life, indulge in it for months (or years in the case of the London bombings) and then lash out in such a cowardly way. Anger at our leaders for not protecting us from such attacks, as unbelievable as they may be. Anger at the mistakes which have been made in our response to these attacks.

Never forget.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Waning Gibbous


That is all I could type to Matt this afternoon after exiting the theater from seeing United 93. I would have to say that was the quietest theater I've ever been in. It took a full few minutes after the end of the movie for people to start moving around and shuffling out, many still in tears, and not ashamed to show them. I'm not going to say that there are "no words to describe it", since I will likely launch into a tirade shortly, but that is as fitting a statement as any. What a powerful movie. For those of you unfamiliar with this one, it's about United Airlines Flight 93, one of the 4 planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001 and the only one not to successfully reach its target. It crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after what many believe was an attempt by the passengers to retake the plane from the terrorists. The movie follows the plane\passengers\crew of United 93 from preparations to their ultimate demise. You also get a really good sense of the confused state of the flight operations and military systems on the ground as they try to wrap their heads around what is happening and attempt to mount a response.

What can I say? Go see this movie. I didn't think any movie about 9/11 could draw such emotion from me. From the very beginning, my heart was pounding in my chest and I felt extremely tense throughout the entire thing. I would even go so far as to say this is the most tense I have ever felt during a movie. Some scenes near the end, with passengers calling their families to say goodbye even managed to squeeze a few tears from me, quite the feat for any movie. It is rather fitting that we saw this movie so close to the 5th anniversary of the attacks. I intend to write a little bit on that tomorrow evening, so I'll leave my 9/11 thoughts to percolate overnight and be back at you later on that.

As I was biking home tonight, I was surprised to see the moon shining down brightly, having not seen it for most of the week due to rain. In following with my new obsession with photography, I trundled up my Canon S3 to the roof, set it on the Ultrapod II and took a few shots. Here are two different crops of the same shot, with the moon waning gibbous, 3 nights after the Full Moon.

I will depart shortly for Trial to stock up on some supplies and pick up some grilleables for tomorrow when Matto will join me for a BBQ we planned kinda last minute.

September the 11th will dawn on us within an hour here in Japan, but with the time difference, the anniversary of the time of the actual attacks will be tomorrow night. I plan to be glued to my computer, on CNN's website, which is piping out a rebroadcast of the feed it had going from 8:30 AM on 9/11/01.

Addendum: It is now 2:21AM and I have spent aproximately the last 2 hours on the roof. Why you ask? Because it's the safest place in a thunderstorm of course... duh! On my way to Trial (no more grills, NOT impressed) I noticed a storm system coming in. When I got home, I grabbed the camera and headed back up to the roof to get a few shots. A few turned into a few hundred, out of which about 30 captured lightning in some shape or form, not too shabby for a first attempt. At first, I was shooting in Black and White, without realizing... but that's ok.

Then I changed to colour and manged to actually capture a ground strike, which is pretty amazing considering the whole time I sat up there I only saw like 4 of those. Most of the show was happening from cloud to cloud. This one, judging from the mountains which frame it, is about 10-20 kilometers from me.

Also got a good shot of the sky lit up purple, quite the little system moving through ol' Utsunomiya.

Anywho, off to bed.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rediscovering Utsunomiya

When Scott left Japan last May, one of my favourite weekend pastimes went with him. Most weekends, for just about one full year, we would kill an afternoon or day aimlessly wandering the streets and parks of Utsunomiya. It was relaxing, it was intellectually stimulating due to our discussions and it was just plain good for the soul to be out and about. Today, in memory of Scott (who is currently at this temple in Thailand, for an intensive meditation seminar) I did a little aimless wandering. The only difference, other than the obvious point of Scott not being along, was that instead of walking, I decided to bike it. I ended up covering quite a bit of ground, and would often smile as I recognized a street\neighbourhood where Scott and I had wandered by some time ago.

My first destination was Chuo Park, where I ambled on foot for a good hour taking pictures. The day was absolutely perfect for it, sunny but not humid, with a nice breeze. Many people were taking advantage of this little oasis of green in the centre Utsunomiya to do some reading, take a snooze or a walk with the grand kids.

Most of the pictures I took were of critters of some kind. From ducks and geese to spiders and cicadas, the park is full of life... if you know where to look. I liked this shot of a dragonfly in dark profile against the sky.

Almost every bush hides a spider of some type, but this big boy was hanging between some branches and a bush, making his yellow stand out quite nicely. Unfortunately he was in the shadows a bit, but still a good shot.

I've been enjoying the dragonflies here, who are the perfect models most of the time, so long as they are approached carefully. This guy was taking a break on a tiny twig.

Of course, one of the inescapable sounds this time of year in Japan is that of the thousands of semis (cicadas) chirping away happily day and night. This guy was up in a tree, the 12X zoom of the S3 certainly comes in handy once in a while. Not a very pretty insect, but their song heralds the coming of the summer heat and they will begin to die off shortly with the cold nights we've been having.

Chuo park has a small square where a few dozen pigeons congregate to be fed and otherwise entertain passersby. Our own little version of Trafalgar Square if you will. Every time you visit the park, you can be just about guaranteed to have some kids chasing pigeons. Today was no exception and this cute little girl was hard at it, taking a short break to look at me and say and wave hello after a little prompting from her mom. As she was making her way through the square, a flight of pigeons came in for a landing, and I was able to get this, which is probably my favourite shot of the day. Yoshiko and I have an ongoing debate as to which is cuter, a little boy or a little girl... we are on opposite sides of the issue, I contend girls are cuter...

This trumpeting little boy has some company today.

Artist at work.

After walking around the park, I hopped back on my bike and decided to explore a new direction. I headed North from Chuo Park, then headed West for a while and turned back North. Travelling through quiet residential neighbourhoods, I quickly ended up crossing Keirinjo dori and into totally new territory for me. The benefits of a bike is that is certainly extends your range. In the distance, I saw this towering tower thing sticking out over a wooded area and remembering something Stacy had said about a nice temple near a water tower, I decided to head in that direction. When I got there and parked my bike, I was left perplexed. After climbing up a steep set of steps, I was at the foot of the tower, which looks totally un-Japanese in every way... especially in its lack of antennae and satellite dishes. Having had the sign translated by by lovely lady, I now know it is in fact a water tower... but a strange one. Looks like there's an observation deck at the top.

One thing is certain, they don't want anybody getting near it. This is quite unfortunate since it is surrounded by an overgrown Japanese style garden and some nice green space. And it probably offers quite a view of the city.

The strange thing about it is that the stairs look like they were made to look fancy, like leading up to a public space or park or something. There is a sad little sand covered park off to the left of the gates, but this is a more recent addition, added quite some time after the stairs\tower. Maybe it used to be part of a park that was shut down due to budget cutbacks or something?

After my little climb up to the tower, I hopped back onto my bike and headed Southwards back to the downtown core. I followed the little creek\river thing which runs through town and ended up in Izumicho, the city's red-light district. Found this interesting little street lined with tiny little Snack pubs. Behind every door is a different establishment... probably just a small bar\grill with 4-6 stools?

After a quick stop at home, I met up with Yoshiko after she was finished work and we had a coffee at Tullys and then we both went home. It's nice that she works downtown now, we can do more of these little meetings without the need for a car. When I got home, I got my second view of Nantai-san... which will be much more visible over the next few months as Fall and Winter come through. Now if only I could do away with those power lines, and that building... hmmm.

Later, I hooked up with Matt and we met Yasuko and Kanako who had just finished their Monday shift at AEON. We headed to an Okinawan place in Yatai Mura (Yatai is food stall and mura is village) and had a fabulous evening out. Ended up spending just a bit over 2 hours there, had some great food, beer, Awamori and Awamori mixed with mango or passion fruit.... really good!

Yasuko is a big fan of Okinawa, spending some time there EVERY year, so she's quite familiar with the dishes from Okinawa. One of the first things to come across the counter were these sea grapes, some kind of seaweed I believe. They were quite tasty.

These little guys on the other hand, I wasn't so fond of. The tofu was great, but I don't like crunching down on little fish like that... these are what we use for bait... to catch bigger fish.... that we can fillet and eat good fish meat from....

Here's the group, posing for a shot inside the tiny 8-stool yatai.

And a view from outside.

I would say the highlight of the evening was when we noticed a guy putting away his sanshin and we convinced him to play us a quick tune. He was still learning so a bit shy, but it was great!

After eating and drinking for a while, we said our thank yous and piled on out of there. Someone was gracious enough to take this picture of us out front.

And that was my Monday, back to the grind tomorrow. hurrah.

In blogging news, the Asia Blog Awards have rolled along and I am pleased to report that sushiandmaplesyrup has been retained as one of the nominees for top Japan blogs. Fun! If you are interested, you can check out the Asia Pundit site. My personal vote for photo blogs would be frangipani and Japan Window... both are AMAZING photographers. The others I am not familiar with... yet.

The nominees for best Japan Blog Q1 2006/2007 are as follows:

In other sadder news today, Steve Irwin, the Croc Hunter who entertained and taught millions through his dangerous antics with wild creatures was killed on a dive in Australia. The irony is that a relatively mellow creature, the stingray, was to blame for his death. Having handled poisonous snakes, gators, and other assorted nastiness, this is a surprising end to such an interesting life. I'm sure he would have wanted to die doing what he loved, and he got his wish. RIP Steve, condolences to Australia who has lost one heck of a good bloke.