Monday, November 27, 2006

A Tokyo Tower Tour

After snatching the book back from Matt this week, I started reading Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr again. I first read the book not long after I arrived here, and it quite simply made my blood boil and left me sitting there incredulous that a country most view as one of the most advanced in the world could possibly be in such shape. Reading through the first Chapter on Construction again now, on the verge of leaving Japan, I find it quite simply fascinating. I have seen trickling rivers dammed up 3, 4 and 5 times up stream in the natural wonderland of the Japanese Alps, I have seen water an inch high running down a 10 meter deep concrete chute, and I have seen entire mountainsides covered in the concrete that is the lifeblood of the construction industry. Amazing to read it with a little more time "in-country."

Anywho. Another weekend has come to a close and we are now less than a month away from our Vietnam\Cambodia trip! Woohoo! Will be nice to get out of the office, and out of the country, for a while.

Sunday was spent picking up some Christmas gifts to give to some students who got Yoshiko and I something for our wedding last month. We then settled down under my kotatsu as the rain started to fall and watched a couple of movies. Relatively mellow day.

This morning, we hopped on the Tobu line heading out to Asakusa. The day had 2 main objectives, first to try and scrounge up some Christmas gifts to send home and second to have Yoshiko's medical paperwork done up for the immigration process. Matt came along since he wanted to also check out the shops in Asakusa and run an errand near Shinjuku. We ended up being quite lucky with the weather, leaving the rain behind in Utsunomiya for a cloudy but dry day in Tokyo. We wandered pretty much aimlessly at first, with nothing much catching my eye in the touristy shops near Sensoji, but I did manage to pickup gifts for my parents before we met up with one of Matt's friends and headed to lunch. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the day, and some had some rather nicely decorated doors.

As we passed by Sensoji, I snapped a quick picture not noticing that some of the kids in the school group were posing for me! A bunch of the kids said "hello" and "teacher" as we walked by before collapsing into giggles. Kids here sure are cute.

The pedestrian street wasn't as crowded as usual, which makes for a nice change from the usual elbow to elbow sea of humanity.

We had a quick udon tempura lunch set before parting ways with Yoshiko and I heading to the Tokyo tower area to find the clinic. We made our way by train to the area of the clinic, with unfortunately no real idea as to where it is. Their web site had no map, but we did have an address and we knew it was close to Tokyo tower. Well... unfortunately, the layout of neighbourhoods and buildings aren't quite so easy to follow around here. 2 different police officers gave us 2 different sets of directions to the address, both on opposite sides of the huge tower\park\business area. We ended up walking around in a complete circle for 40 minutes following their directions before finally finding the place. When they said it was "close to Tokyo Tower" they weren't kidding! This is the building here, with the orange structure in the background being one of the tower's legs!

So despite being 20-30 minutes late for the appointment, we were able to get in and fill in the forms in quintuplet... poor Yoshiko had to write her addresses down 20-some-odd times on different forms and was quickly taken in for the checkup. While she was in there, I headed for a bit of a walk around, having never been in this area of Tokyo before. Having never been this close to the tower, I never realized it's true scale... that is one big-ass monstrosity. Here's a picture of just one of its legs.

I quickly headed away from the tower, which while quite lovely at night is nothing special during the day. I had noticed a temple nearby and I wandered the grounds a bit taking pictures. I've never really liked cloudy days for taking pictures... I like punchy, colourful pictures and the gray skies don't help much. I am quite pleased with the way this one turned out though. This is a leaf which had fallen on a stone on which are carved the footprints of a nearby Buddha statue.

As you can imagine, the tower towers over everything around.

I was surprised to see people in some of the tower's windows in this zoomed pic I took. Gotta love the 12x zoom on the S3!

I then headed back to the tower to grab a coffee and pickup some gifts for my brothers while waiting for Yoshiko to finish. The touristy shops inside the tower were very well stocked, great shopping stop for souvenirs. Surprisingly, everything was over quite quickly and we were able to meet up with Matt in Ueno as scheduled despite our running around. On the way to the station, I spotted the Tokyo Masonic Building and snapped a quick shot of their funky sign.

After a quick run in to Ameyoko in Ueno for some stuff for Matt and a bag for me to protect my backpack in when we travel next month, we picked up some grub to eat on the train and settled in to our reserved seats for the ride home.

For anyone living out here in Utsunomiya, I strongly recommend you check out the Tobu line. It is MUCH cheaper than JR and if you are heading into the Asakusa\Ueno area it makes a lot of sense to get a reserved seat on the express back from Tokyo and avoid standing in the crowded commuter trains. The cost of a comfy reserved seat is about the same as the local fare on the JR line! Easy way to check out train schedules by the way is Hyperdia which is quite easy to use. You can put in TobuUtsunomiya for Tobu line departures or just Utsunomiya for the JR station.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ameri-japa-nadian Thanksgiving

I thought that would be an appropriate name for today's feast, held to celebrate American Thanksgiving, in the Japanese apartment of a Canadian, attended by 2 Canadians, an American and 4 Japanese with dishes from the US and Canada adapted to the availability of ingredients in Utsunomiya. Fantastic meal!

Today's menu:
  • Roasted Chicken (stuffed, seasoned and prepped by Matt, basted and carved by myself and Yoshi, roasted in our school's manager's borrowed oven, truly a team effort!)
  • Candied Yams (prepared by Matt and Sayaka, satsuma imo substituted for yams)
  • Garlic and Lemon Mashed Potatoes and Corn on the cob (Stacy and Matt team effort)
  • Lovely French bread
  • Maple pie (recipe from "Aux Anciens Canadiens" from Quebec City, made by Yoshiko and myself with Matt providing the pastry)
  • Baileys in Tim Horton's coffee (coffee sent from my dear friend Sean last year, Baileys from Motoki)
  • Persimon and apple
  • Tea, wine and straight (no booze :-p ) coffee served throughout the afternoon\evening.
Quite the meal. I was particularly impressed at how well the chicken and the pie turned out. It was all really good! Unfortunately, the bike ride down frosted up my camera which then fogged up when we came into the warm apartment... and it didn't unfog until dessert... but I am pleased to present to you, the pie...

Quite simple to make really. First beat 2 eggs with 1 cup and a half of packed brown sugar. Then add 2 teaspoons of melted butter, a half cup of heavy cream and a third of a cup of pure maple syrup, beat until smooth. Pour into pie crust, bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 50-60 minutes. Let cool at room temperature on a rack, drizzle with fresh cream and voila! Found this recipe online on, and it is purportedly from an amazing restaurant in le Vieux Quebec called "Aux Anciens Canadiens". Man but that was a good pie, will definitely have to make a stop at this restaurant next time I hit Quebec City.

A great time was had by all, big thanks to Stacy for having us over and to Matt for organizing everything and helping everybody out with some part of the cooking, and thanks to Master Kobayashi for making the 2.5 hour trek down from Tsuchiura to join us!

Here is the group (minus Sayaka and Motoki) after a great meal.

This whole holiday-in-the-middle-of-the-week thing really is great... only 2 more days to the weekend!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dreary cold weekend in Utsunomiya...

... but we made the best of it.

The weekend officially kicked off on Saturday night with Yaki-tori (chicken on a stick grilled over coals, quite yummy!) and a couple of beers with Yoshiko, Matto the Natto, Stacy, Motoki and Yusuke at Tsukunetei, right near work. I've only recently discovered Yaki-tori and I'm slowly realizing what I missed out on. I'm most fond of tsukune, which is ground chicken, mixed with seasonings and then put on a stick and grilled.... good stuff.

Sunday morning, Yoshiko and I headed out to Mahal (newish Indian place) to pick up some nan for the Indian\Mexican\Canadian feast which we had planned for the afternoon. While i was quite impressed with the photos and variety on their menu, and the service was great (we got free coffee while waiting for our take out) their nan was a bit disappointing. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to Al-Noor which was forced to close down due to a road-widening scheme.... Utsunomiya is now sadly lacking in (cheap) Indian food. There is a place up the street called Motti, but I believe it is a bit more pricey than we were used to at Al-Noor so we'll just have to wait until the cook comes back from his visit home and opens the new restaurant.

So we got our nan and headed to Aiichirou's where we were presented with a wonderful feast. On top of our nan bread contribution, Matt made some lentils and basmatti rice, and Aiichirou and Fumi made Indian style chicken and potatoes as well as Salsa, Guacamole, Eggplant, Lamb, and eventually we had Canadian fudge and rice pancakes served with Maple Syrup. The whole meal was supported by wine from the Niagara region of Ontario and some cider from Orléans Island near Quebec City. Fantastic afternoon spent inside, well protected from the cold and rainy weather outside.

We decided to hit up a movie this afternoon and went to see WTC, the new Oliver Stone movie about 9/11. It was very good. The thing that strikes me the most about the 9/11 movies I've seen is the beginning. They all do a great job showing a typical day starting out for the main characters of the movie, with no one expecting the events which were soon to unfold. Very well made movie, and coming from Stone, this is no surprise. It was also nice to see Nicholas Cage break out of his stereotype character a bit in this one. Good cast all around really. After the movie, we picked up the chicken which will be the center piece for this Thursday's Thanksgiving meal and headed home to relax for the evening.

The week ahead won't be too bad, with the Thursday holiday breaking things up nicely. The weather this weekend make picture taking a no-go, but I did manage to get some shots earlier this week I can share with you.

The sunset on Wednesday was simply spectacular, looked like the hills were on fire.

I'm also enjoying fiddling with the panoramic mode of my camera and got a couple of the larger mountains to the north of the sunset playing hide and seek with the clouds.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ah Tokyo...

We've returned from another most excellent journey into Japan's biggest city tired, but unscathed. Fantastic weekend it was, spent some time exploring some new areas, had some great food and did some relaxing along the way... somewhere... I think.

Sunday morning, we headed on down to the station and hopped on the 8:37 rapid to Shibuya. Oddly enough, I've taken this exact same train several times in the last few months... Shibuya seems to be a popular destination for me these days, though this time only as a transit point. I was quite excited, while on the train, to finally get my first real look at Mount Fuji. Seems the breezy weather had pushed all the clouds away and we could see the behemoth towering over Tokyo from all the way out in Tochigi prefecture. And it wasn't just a dark triangle either, it was so clear I could see some details on the snow which covers a good part of the mountain this time of year.

Our first destination was actually Shinagawa where we wanted to visit a new Aquarium. To be honest, if anyone is thinking of checking out the Epson Shinagawa Aqua Stadium... don't bother. Sad to say, but it's true. Did we have a good time? Absolutely, but for the 1800Yen admission fee, there just wasn't that much going on and most of the 3 hours we spent there was waiting for one of the only 2 shows to start. From what I understand, the Yokohama aquarium is better, as is the old Shinagawa Aquarium... and of course I can vouch for Oarai's Aqua World to be a top notch facility. After a quick 5-10 minute walk of the fish tanks, we were surprised to come face to face with the exit! Very small place. The shows were good, and there are a series of other entertainment options but they all cost anywhere form 6-1800 Yen to check out... so we didn't.

As I said, there was some cool stuff there, including these huge crabs which were just across from the penguins.

Speaking of penguins, we did manage to arrive on time for a feeding\info session by the penguin pool and those little guys sure do know when it's feeding time! They followed that lady with the bucket quite closely. Of the two shows we saw, I'd say the best was the dolphins, of course. I love these guys, and you can really tell they enjoy putting on a show. As the trainers start coming out, they get visibly excited and start making laps around the pool.

After leaving the aquarium, we had a nice lunch at a little cafe which was surprisingly affordable considering the location right in the heart of the Shinagawa shopping district. Afterwards, we bummed around the shops and found THE coolest shop I've ever been to in Tokyo. It's called Dean and Deluca and it's a gourmet foods shop\bakery\deli\all kinds of other cool food related stuff shop. From what I just read on their web site, they originated in New York. This is amusing since I told Yoshiko that it had a New Yorky feel about it when we were there. In fact, it looked so good that we made a detour to Shibuya today to pick up some stuff at their other Tokyo location.

We then headed down to Odaiba, where we had reserved a room at the Meridien Grand Pacific where we stayed last April (as I was told by my lovely wife, not last March as I'd written in my last post... smart as a whip that one) and were immediately battered by some pretty nasty winds. I guess being by the seaside has it's drawbacks on occasion, and little Yoshiko almost got blown off her feet a couple of times. We did manage to fight our way from the station to the boardwalk area near the hotel where we had a great view of Tokyo and the Rainbow Bridge. The last time we were here, the weather was pretty crappy and we didn't get to see much... not the case this weekend. Here is Yoshiko trying to keep her hair out of her face for a picture.

Posing for pictures is so much easier when you're bald... :-)

One of the main attractions of Odaiba is of course this funky building, headquarters and studios for Fuji Television.

After meeting with a wall of people waiting to check-in to the hotel, we decided to leave our bags there and head into the malls near the hotel to walk around. Once in a while, we'd pop out and check on the progress of the setting sun, which highlights ol' Fuji-san quite well in this picture.

We did eventually get checked in to our hotel and were surprised to find ourselves on the 23rd floor. We weren't on the Tokyo side, but did enjoy a nice view over the port and out over Yokohama. The tunnel you see here is the highway into Yokohama by the way. The sunset was also spectacular from up here, I think this is my favourite picture from the weekend.

After catching our breath, we hopped on a shuttle bus out to Venusfort, another huge mall out there in Odaiba... as I always say, Shoppingu should be declared Japan's national sport! We were lucky to find the Toyota show room open and checked that out quickly.

This showroom is where they feature their latest models and gadgets as well as some of their prototypes. You get to check out the cars thoroughly, and even get to try out their little hybrid mini cars on an indoor track! Cool place to kill some time... unfortunately, I kept making the mistake of saying Honda instead of Toyota. Not my fault really, since Toyota has no plant out here in Utsunomiya but Honda does, the latter company is in our conversations more often, that's all.

Back in the mall, I found the level of detail quite amazing. In some parts, the hallways look like an old-style town, especially in the restaurant section. There was also an art-show displaying some interesting sculptures by Tatsuya Ishii throughout the mall.

Deciding we were finally a little hungry, we hopped on the bus back to Aqua City (mall near our hotel) and sat down to a fantastic Mexican meal. For those of you with a hankering for some good Mexican, head on down to Zest Cantina in Aqua City for some great grub. It wasn't at all expensive like Fonda de la Madrugada in Harajuku was, and it was great! To be fair, Fonda is a totally different experience... much higher end. We shared quesadillas and fajitas and were quite satisfied with the meal. Afterwards, we headed back outside in the cold for a little bit to check out the night view of Tokyo Bay. Here, a couple walked into a timed shot I was planning, but it makes for an interesting shot so I guess I don't mind. That's Tokyo tower on the left by the way.

We planned to have a drink at a bar on the top floor of our hotel but after learning of a 1050Yen seating charge and minimum 1000yen drink price, we settled for enjoying the view from the hallway outside the bar. And a great view it was.

Instead of the expensive drink, we went down to the hotel store and indulged in some Haagen-Dazs ice cream and a couple of canned drinks... all for the price of the seating fee upstairs for one person... ridiculous! We then retired to our room for the evening.

This morning, we awoke to a significantly less windy, and subsequently much more hazy, day. From our room, we could see right out the the Landmark Tower in Yokohama, which we went up last Winter.

A big part of the pleasure of staying in a hotel for me out here in Japan is the great breakfast one is usually treated to. Sure enough, the Pacific Meridien does not disappoint. We were admitted into the Sky Lounge (where we opted not to drink the night before) and enjoyed a wonderful buffet style breakfast while overlook the city, and snow covered mount Fuji as well. Like most good things in Tokyo, the breakfast was expensive, but well worth it in my opinion. We also took the opportunity to get some more pictures of the great cityscape below.

I also made a panorama out of some of my shots, I'd say this is my second favourite picture of the weekend.

After checking out of the hotel, we hopped back on the train with the purpose of getting my Vietnamese Visa, which was the secondary purpose of this trip into the big T. Unfortunately, it's not too easy to find the Vietnamese Embassy out here. We ended up getting off in Harajuku and having a taxi find the place for us by using a map... he had no clue where the Embassy itself was, but managed to find the address for us in a very isolated neighbourhood near Yoyogi park. The embassy itself looks like a house with an attached apartment building, which really surprised both Yoshiko and I. I guess we shouldn't have expected something like the Canadian Embassy we visited a couple of months ago... The visa process was quick and painless and after figuring out where we were (and taking a train from a ghost station which isn't on our maps) we made our way to Ebisu, after making a pit stop at Dean and Deluca in Shibuya of course. Neither I nor Yoshiko had been here before, and it seems to be a nice enough area, though highly expensive. Ebisu Garden Palace includes the mandatory shopping areas as well as an office tower filled with foreign companies. Seems like a very nice area to work in, not as dense as some of the other places in Tokyo.

Speaking of the density of Tokyo, I am always in awe of the mass of the city stretching out in every direction. From the top of the office tower, we had a good view of this teeming city.

This is a closeup of Shinjuku, with Yoyogi park in the foreground.

I also spotted this building, and am a bit perplexed as to how those cars got into the roof. Car elevator? I don't see an entrance\exit from any driveway down... odd.

That was pretty much the day. After a nice coffee next to a sleeping gaikokujin salaryman at Excelsior Cafe, we made our way back to the station and hopped a rapid home. Quite a lovely weekend indeed.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Heading to Tokyo

Good week, pretty relaxed due to the fact it was counseling week. Still taught some lessons, but not so many...

Yesterday was Yukiyo's last day with us and we had a bit of a Pizza party. Kanako took the following lovely picture of the group.

I've gotta run to the bus now and head to the station. Yoshiko and I are spending the weekend in Tokyo, reserved a room at the Pacific Meridian hotel in Odaiba, where we had such a fantastic experience last March. Today's plans include a visit to a new aquarium and bumming around the big T. Tomorrow, I've got to make a run to the Vietnamese Embassy to get my Visa processed for our trip next month.

Aaaaaaand scene.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Pretty chill weekend

Feeling pretty mellow after a relaxing weekend spent around the neighborhood. Didn't do much other than start looking at the immigration papers, watch a couple of DVDs and take a couple of walks.

This weekend, I finally got to see why there are flags advertising Utsunomiya as a big Jazz town. There was a bit of a festival going on with stages setup around downtown and bands doing their thing. These three were playing at the newly built $1,500,000 outdoor concert hall along Orion street.

Yes, the festival was named the Miya Jazz Inn... very sad to see such a lack of English skills at the city level, what is it? A jazz hotel? Anywho... lots of people out and about listening to the bands, a few of which were actually playing Jazz to my surprise. The reason Jazz is supposedly such a big deal here is that a famous jazz musician was born and raised here, not sure who though.

I was kind of excited when I first saw what ended up being 3 festivals (Gyoza, Jazz and Halloween) being setup as it usually means great yatai foods... unfortunately, the traditional yatai (Oconomiyaki, Tacoyaki, Yakisoba, etc) were not set up! There were a few places where you could get gyoza, curry or oden, but the lineups were long and I didn't have the time to wait during my break on Saturday. Here's the curry stand from Mahal, a new Indian place which setup in town, complete with a street side tandoori oven!

They did however have some activities for the kids, including this mini-climbing wall.

After walking around and grabbing a coffee, we headed back home and enjoyed a bit of time on the roof admiring the stunning sunset.

It went down relatively fast, within 5-10 minutes, it was completely gone.

This morning we lazed around and watched a movie while huddled under my kotatsu. Fall really has set in here and it has been a little damp lately. We finally did decided to leave the house and went to Yarra for lunch which is always great. It was nice to spend a little time in my old neighborhood. We then dropped by the immigration office where I picked up the forms for my re-entry permit for our trip in December, I'll take care of that this week some time.

I hadn't been to Chuo park in a while, so we decided to take a bit of a walk. I really do love this park, the leaves smelled wonderful and there were all kinds of people walking around. We even spotted a guy doing tai-chi. Even though it was overcast, still a nice day for a walk.

As we walked around, we came up on a few ducks drying themselves off on a fence. The first one flew off as I approached but another one let me get in real close, maybe 2 meters?

As I tried to get a little closer, it finally decided I'd breached it's personal circle and flew off...

A lovely afternoon. On the way back home, we spotted this amusing sign. Seems like something an NRA member would put up, seemed pretty out of place in a quiet Japanese neighborhood.

So that was about that, I pondered joining Matt for a drink with his 7/11 friend tonight, but have decided to be lazy and stay home. He lent me a bunch of Agatha Christie movies which I've been enjoying, I may just pop one of those in.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Farewell to Ishikawa-san

Tonight after work, we all headed out to a lamb BBQ restaurant to say our second of 3 farewells to Yukiyo, one of our staff members.

The restaurant we went to is Sora Mame, and it was quite good. Unfortunately, I didn't get many pictures since my batteries died on me as soon as we sat down to eat... damn spare set I had with me was also dead since they're still new and aren't holding a full charge yet... d'oh!

I did get a shot of the storefront though, and I'm sure Matto will post some nice pics of the evening.

Our next farewell to Yukiyo will be a pizza party at work next Saturday. Though her last day was on Thursday and she is moving to her new school in Saitama this weekend, she will come back to help us out and for the party next Saturday since not everyone could make it to tonight's bash.

Now, off to bed. Gotta clean up in the morning and Yoshiko is coming over... we need to start the daunting task of filling in forms for her Canadian Residency Application, and later in the day I will whip up a nice meal for us, something I haven't done in much too long.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nikko Soba Matsuri

Aaaaaaaaaah. Nice to take a breather and get a day off in between the regular work week and the crazy busy Saturday.

Headed out to Imaichi this morning and after swinging by the in-laws' place, we all headed over to a lovely park for the day's festivities at the Nikko Soba Festival. (known as Imaichi Soba Festival before amalgamation) Soba, by the way, is a noodle made from buckwheat flower. It is quite nice, especially when served cold on a hot summer day. Here are some freshly cut tea-flavored noodles along with some of the tools of the trade.

While my father-in-law was parking the car (an adventure which took him about an hour) we started the day by checking out an amateur dance troop. I was a bit surprised when they started up actually. The first few seconds of the music was traditional Japanese, but it quickly jumped into some rock and other kinds of stuff, which kind of contradicted their Japanese outfits. These kids had trained quite hard, and it showed.

After grabbing some BBQ squid and finding our valiant driver\parker\father\husband, we made our way to a different area of the festival, where Soba makers from all over the place were plying their trade. Here you can see two steps of the process, though not subsequent. The guy in the back is making the dough which will eventually be manhandled into a ball, rolled out into thin strips and finally cut.

Here's a guy finishing up the process of making the ball of dough.

And here's a roller, notice the lineup at this shop's booth, a sure sign of a "famous" Soba maker.

And finally the cutting. You'll notice that after being rolled out into a large sheet, the dough is then folded over onto itself for cutting, and you're left with lovely noodles.

This is the sign of the Soba shop we ended up settling on, they're from Inawashiro, the town at the foot of Mount Bandai... a skiing destination I hope to hit a few more times this winter. Ski season is just around the corner... woohoo!

This shot is for my mother. She'd commented while she was here on the footwear of the ladies, which more often than not involve ridiculously high\pointy heels. Here's an example, pink, sparkly stiletto heels, the perfect shoe for a day walking around the countryside of Japan.

One of the favourite accompaniments to Soba is of course Tempura, and this shop was offering their own take on it... fruit tempura. We thought about trying it out, but the stuff they had laid out had been there for a while, not a good thing for deep fried foods... so we passed.

An interesting snack out here is mochi, made from sticky rice which is cooked and then pounded into a sticky paste. I'd never had freshly made mochi, and hadn't enjoyed the experience to date. When still steaming hot however, it is quite yummy! From what I understand, eating mochi leads to quite a few elderly people's death in Japan from choking on the sticky stuff. My lovely wife Yoshiko taught me an interested tidbit of information as to why older people are so fond of it. I'd never really thought of it before, but it stems from their having survived the lean years during and after WWII where the nation was pretty much starving. Pounded rice cakes were considered a treat at the time, and so people are still in the habit of eating them today.

It's unfortunate that we didn't have a clear day as the view in this direction is simply breathtaking, especially once the mountains get snow on them. All in all a fantastic day. Unfortunately, I do have to head in to work tomorrow... only 110 days until the end of my contract, including weekends and holidays... so not too bad... but who's counting?