Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Japan, The Strange Country

[Update: Looks like Tanaka-san took down the English version due to negative feedback. The Japanese version is just as good, if not better, and still up here: http://vimeo.com/9873910)

My co-worker Kay shared this interesting video that was created by a Japanese grad student named Kenichi Tanaka--his website and art is fantastic, you should check it out.

The video is interesting as a self-reflection to show Japanese audiences how strange they appear to foreigners. A fascinating country and culture indeed.

Japan-The Strange Country (English ver.) from Kenichi on Vimeo.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Who's Up for Some Shabu-Shabu?

Getting the real thing in Shinjuku...

Stirring the pot, getting ready for some prime Kobe

The goods. Totally self-indulgent, totally good

Before: Maris about to dunk and swirl

After: Buttery kobe goodness

Just when you think you can't possibly eat another bite, 
they bring a huge plate of fresh noodles out for your shabu-shabu broth

Watching Sausage Being Made...

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made 
- Otto von Bismarck

At long last, I'm posting some pictures of Japanese government and law structures that Maris and I took during her December visit to Tokyo. Most of Japanese lawmaking and law enforcement is based out of Chiyoda, near Ginza. Included below are some shots of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the National Diet Building and the Supreme Court.

Brushing up on my Japanese law before our walk 
(actually, I'm trying to figure out where the Imperial Palace is) 

The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the most fun to talk about. The grounds occupy roughly 7.5 square kilometers, and at the height of the 1980's property bubble were valued to be worth more than the entire real estate holdings in California. This is the main residence of the Emperor and Empress of Japan. In Japan's constitutional monarchy, the Emperor has practically zero power. Similar to other underemployed monarchs, this means plenty of time to party hard, act strange and fill the tabloids with all things trivial and not so trivial. Extremely private and introverted, the royal family is mostly out of sight except for its traditional New Years well-wishes to the public (from behind bullet-proof glass of course). 

Moat that separates the Imperial Palace from Tokyo proper

Nijubashi Bridge separates the Palace from the Palace Grounds

Can't escape the paparazzi

Maris with the Inner Palace guard tower in the background

Next up, from the symbolic seat of government to the place where the real action is, was the National Diet Building. The National Diet Building holds both houses of the Diet of Japan--the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. The building definitely makes an impression with its iconic if not enigmatic pyramidal roof.

National Diet Building

Finally, we ended our walking tour of Japanese government sites by snapping a few photos of the Supreme Court of Japan building. Designed and built in 1974 by Okada Shinichi, this building sort of struck me as a bit ironic and oppressive--bare concrete walls, no windows, rather prison-like if you ask me. 

Supreme Court of Japan. No windows, no escaping the law...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Northern Japan Snow Adventure

Niseko. Cone volcano Mount Yotei in background (photo: Business Week)

One of the activities sitting near the top of my "must do" list for my Japan stay was snowboarding the mountains of Hokkaido. I'm actually not much of a snowboarder, but being from Boulder, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a break from the concrete and glass canyons of Tokyo and get some fresh mountain air. Throw an active cone volcano (Mount Yotei) into the mix and I was sold. Luckily, it didn't take much to convince Maris either, and so we decided to spend a few days in between Christmas and New Years up north on snowy Hokkaido.

Very cold but very fun!
Hokkaido, among other things, is probably best known for Sapporo beer, tasty taraba crab and snowy winters. Much of the island lies right in the path of Siberian cold fronts that help contribute to Niseko's ranking as the #2 snowiest resort in the world according to Forbes Traveler--average snowfall is 595 inches per season. For our trip in particular, we had a love-hate relationship with the weather: our ski days were met with bone-chilling wind, fog, rain(!), and yes, sweet powdery snow.

It was so cold my snot froze my jacket zipper shut

Our "Australian frat house." Looks nice enough from the outside anyway.

The other rough spot was our accommodations in Niseko, and the blame lies squarely with me. (Perhaps I messed this up enough to get myself permanently relieved from this duty; one can only hope...). The name of our "hotel" was Ramat Niseko, and it was less hotel than Australian frat house (Maris's verdict, not mine). I knew we were in trouble when the owner, Sue, didn't offer us a key to our room. This would later haunt us each night when drunken Australian college kids would barge into our room looking for "the pisser." Oh well. Win some, lose some...

Maris contemplates Yotei-zan

My new Japanese snowboard buddies

Overall, I think skiing and snowboarding with scenic Mount Yotei looming in the background more than made up for the strange sleeping arrangements. Niseko was probably the only chance we'll have to hit the slopes this season. For our singular shot at powdery glory, though, it was quite ideal.

Warming up, Apres ski. Cup of hot chocolate says "Comfortable elegant time". Comfortable elegant time, indeed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Breakfast of Champions: 6am Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

Checking out the tasty sea critters at Tsukiji

I'm sort of posting events out of order, but I had to tell you about New Years at the Park Hyatt Tokyo while it was still fresh in my mind... Speaking of "fresh," Christmas Eve morning found Maris and me at Tsukiji Fish Market asking ourselves "Are we tough enough for 6am uni (raw sea urchin private parts) and other delectable raw sea critters?" The answer--if that sushi is the world's freshest as of 3am--was a resounding "YES!"

Maris patiently waiting her turn for 6am sushi at Sushi-bun

With over 900 dealers clearing over 2,000 tons of seafood on an area the size of 43 football fields each day, Tsukiji is the world's largest seafood wholesaler. Roughly $6 billion in fresh seafood goes through Tsukiji each year. This includes the sushi-grade tuna sold via those famed auctions--one monster tuna even sold for $175,000 the other day! Seeing our breakfast in its pre-sushi (eg whole form) was a neat experience to say the least.

A grizzled Tsukiji vet getting it done. She was all of 4'8" tall.

It was also quite an experience playing "chicken" with the fed-up-with-it-all middlemen who would speed up and try to hit you in their motorized "fish movers." I don't blame them for viewing tourists with disdain; this is their "office" and here we are, collectively bumbling about touching (but not buying) their product and just generally getting in the way. In fact, from mid-December through January each year tourists are banned from the tuna auctions due to the actions of a few bad actors over the years. The final straw was last winter when a drunken British tourist was caught licking the head of a frozen tuna for that must-have Tsjukiji photo.

"Processing" live eels. These guys are slippery so they nail their heads down. Merry Christmas!

Regardless, I was able to talk Maris out of licking fish parts and together we made it past the gauntlet of sadistic fishmongers on wheels to "see some things we ain't seen before." A top 10 Japan experience for sure!


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Meal: New Years Eve at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

View of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

I'm back after a few weeks off during the New Year (Shogatsu) holiday, and so I thought I'd start digging myself out of the list of new experiences to write about by starting with New Years Eve at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. (Just a random aside in case you were wondering, yes, the Japanese do celebrate Christmas but it more closely resembles Valentine's Day--no religious connotation, high retail component, couples give each other gifts and go out on romantic dinners).

Tyler and Maris

Maris was visiting me for the holidays, and so I knew I had to find a special way for us to celebrate New Years Eve and ring in the new decade. I was told the acrophobia-inducing views from the bar and restaurant at the Park Hyatt Tokyo were not to be missed. As a huge fan of the movie "Lost in Translation," I knew the Park Hyatt and its New York Bar factored prominently in the story. I was sold.

Dinner was a 5-course French-American-Japanese fusion tour at Chef Nadine Waechter-Moreno's New York Grill. For you fellow foodies out there, here's a rundown of the menu:
  • First course: Taira Scallop Ceviche with Vanilla, Yellowstone River Caviar, Sea Urchin Flan, Sweet & Sour Cucumbers
  • Second course: Foie Gras Terrine with Fruit Chutney, Brioche, Apple Balsamic and Baby Basil
  • Third course: "Quail Cooked Two Ways" - Seared Quail Breast and Quail Consomme, Chick Pea Puree, Kochi Tomato Salsa
  • Fourth course: Grilled Miyazaki Beef Tenderloin and Braised Veal Cheek, Spiced Bread, Winter Truffle and Nut Tapenade, Spaghetti Squash, Truffle Jus
  • Dessert: Bitter Chocolate Fondant, Pineapple Chili Rice Roll with Coconut Sherbet

First course: Taira Scallop Ceviche

Dessert: Chocolate Fondant, Pineapple Chili Rice Roll, Coconut Sherbert

Favorite dish: Grilled Miyazaki beef tenderloin was pure buttery goodness--never had a steak quite this tasty before. Least favorite dish: Foie gras--I get why it's a "delicacy" but I personally can't get into it. Overall, the food was delicious, but not really worth the figurative "dishwashing" I'll be doing the next few weeks to pay the bill...

Really it was the company, the setting and the occasion that all made this an unforgettable experience. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Morning Commute

Tokyo is (in)famous for the massive morning commute that takes place on the many subway and train lines that snake through the various parts of the metro area. 

A friend of a friend made the video above shot at the train station that I use everyday, Shinagawa Train Station. Much better than I could have done, the video captures the madness that is a Monday morning Tokyo commute. 

In fact, one month later, I'm still recovering from my first foray into train commuting. Partially out of ignorance and partially out of sheer terror, I was "that guy" who made the boneheaded decision to walk in the middle of the station (against the flow of traffic). Lesson learned. 

Nonetheless, my fellow commuters graciously dodged me as I walked the wrong way, and they never said a word.

Here's a map of the more popular commuter lines

Monday, December 07, 2009

Japan, December 7th, 2009

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

While every year I take notice of December 7 and what it means to America, being in Japan on this historic date has made me stop to think just a little more more about the significance of the Japan-America dynamic. 

I'm told it's not polite to bring up World War II and that era, so I haven't asked. I wonder, however, how the date is thought of among the Japanese. Is December 7 significant? Is the date one of nostalgia, or is it one of embarrassment, or none of these things at all?

More importantly, I think about Japan then--our enemy--and now--our ally, and then I look at the friends I've made and many gracious people I've met here and I wonder: Will my children ever have the opportunity to visit and call the people of Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan "friend"?

Shichi-Go-San at Meiji-Jingu

This post got away from me, and I've been meaning to write about my November 15th visit to Meiji Shrine (Meiji-Jingu) for a few weeks now...

Japan's largest torii at Meiji Shrine

The weather was perfect on this particular November Sunday--according to locals, probably the last day like it this year. On my visit to this important Japanese landmark, I was fortunate to stumble upon Shichi-Go-San festivities and even a Shinto wedding.

Meiji Shrine is located in Shibuya, Tokyo on the grounds encompassing an iris garden that the Empress Shoken liked to visit. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and it was first built in 1920. The shrine was subsequently bombed and destroyed during WWII, and it was rebuilt in 1958. 

Shichi-Go-San (literally "Seven-Five-Three") is a traditional festival (dating to the Heian period, 794-1185)commonly held on November 15 to celebrate the of Japanese children into middle childhood. The numbers 3, 5 and 7 are said to be lucky, and they correspond to special ages in a Japanese child's life. In the past, age 3 marked the time when children were old enough to grow out their shaved hairdos. At age 5, boys could finally don hakama pants, while at age 7 girls became old enough to wear an obi with their kimonos. Proud Japanese parents dress their children in their finest and the family ventures to the local shrine. 

Posing for Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) 

These days the festival has taken on a modern twist, turning into something of a fashion show complete with adoring photographers and paparazzi--actually, they're foreign tourists and local "Camera Clubs" made up of elderly folks with brand new SLR cameras. Here's where I got my first taste of the national pose of Japan: flashing the peace sign. Something of a reflex now, I continually find myself posing for pictures with a peace sign...

My good fortune at Meiji Shrine didn't stop with the Shichi-Go-San festival either. As I was about to enter the main shrine complex, I almost walked straight into a Shinto-style wedding taking place. Photos follow in the slideshow below.