Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Puffer Snacks

Trying foods that we have never eaten before has been one of the fun perks of living in Japan. We recently enjoyed an amazing meal in which we added two new foods to our growing list of novel protein sources. We started off the meal with beautifully prepared fugu sashimi. Now, this is not a snack for the faint of heart, fugu is the Japanese name for puffer fish. The organs (especially the liver) and skin of the cute little fish in highly toxic, like you die for sure if you eat it toxic. In Japan, where this dangerous treat is popular, only specially trained and certified chefs are authorized to prepare it and the waste parts (the poisonous bits) are legally required to be stored in specific lockable bins then burned, not tossed with the rest of the trash.

Plate of puffer fish ready for the soup pot.

We didn't just eat fugu sashimi, but also tried it as a grilled appetizer, pickled, in nabe (soup) and they even served us a hot cup of sake with a pectoral fin floating in it (didn't dig on that dish so much). As an added bonus, the restraunt we dined at also served turtle. We didn't let the cute live turtle hanging out by the bathroom stop our quest for new flavours and we dove into a dish of battered and fried turtle. I can't tell you what part of the turtle we ate exactly, but it had bones in it. Both fugu and turtle were quite tasty and it was fun to try them - although I don't like to think too much about the turtle, for some reason I don't feel as comfortable about eating turtle as I do fish.

The turtle greeter.

So how does one follow up such an exciting and novel meal? With a trip to the batting cage bar of course. We walked to Susukino (the party neighbourhood in Sapporo), ordered a round of beers and stepped up to the plate. It was a fun way to follow up our dinner, and if you look closely at the photo, yes, it was kitty-chan herself pitching to us! I hit her with a line drive.

And as you do in Japan, we closed out the night with a stop at one of the biggest kareoke boxes in Susukino. Another fun night of adventure in Sapporo!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bashyo Tickets

When I first arrived here, I wasn't sure what to think of sumo. On the surface (and there is a lot of surface...), the sport doesn't appear as fast-paced and action packed as, for argument sake, our good ol' Canadian rock 'em sock 'em hockey. The thought of watching two nearly naked, super-sized men bump bellies wasn't exactly something I would tune into pay per view to see.

After a couple stints in the field watching sumo on tv and hurling rapid-fire questions at one of the students who enjoys the sport, I got to know it a bit better. Like any sport, knowing more about the rules, skill and strategy involved helps viewer enjoyment. I can now say that, kit aside, I am a fan of the sport and enjoy watching it.

The way the sport works, is 2 week long tournaments are held every two months. During a tournament, there are matches all day, every day and all wrestlers fight a different opponent every day. Sponsors put up cash as a prize that goes to the winner of some matches (they actually get handed a fat stack of bills right there at the end of the match!). The money tends to build as the tournament progresses and the record of the wrestlers develops. Here is a link to the Japan sumo association site if you want to read more.

So basically the "good" matches to watch are always the final weekend of the tournament. The crowd is more into it, there is more money at stake and titles are on the line. So, we did our homework, found out where the next tournament will be (next is Osaka, but most are held in Tokyo) and how to get tickets. Turns out that the only way to get tickets is to be here in Japan (there is NO way to buy tickets directly if you are not within Japan). To get the "good" tickets (the final weekend) you have to phone during the pre-sale day and reserve tickets. They of course don't take credit cards so you simply give them your mailing info and they send the tickets to your house by courier, then you pay cash on delivery (this is why you need to be in Japan to pull this all off).

On the pre-sale day a few weeks ago, I sat down with my cell phone and started dialing. As you can imagine, I only got busy signals for 20 solid minutes of redial. And yes, this is the same country where they are developing robot technologies that are intended to take over nursing home care, but you can't buy your sumo tickets online or with a credit card..... The dichotomoy is amazing! When I finally got through, they had no English speaking operators so I bumbled through the reservation with my pathetic Japanese (good thing I know how to say my address and days of the week - too bad that is about all I can manage).

In the end I was sucessful and the tickets were deliverd safely. So.... we will be attending the upcoming sumo bashyo (tournament) in Osaka! And we are excited about it! Stay tuned for an upcoming post with the details of what it is like to hear those bellies slapping live! Now to figure out how to get someone to tivo Japanese tv so we can see ourselves in the crowd.....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Confessions of a Tikka Addict

Don't get me wrong, Japanese food is great. I really enjoy Japanese food and we go out and indulge often here in Sapporo (where sushi is at its freshest and finest!). But every once in a while, we are looking for something a bit different. Just such an occasion last summer led us to the discovery of what has come to be one of our favorite restaurants in Sapporo.

Mohan Dish is a small Indian curry place not too far from the university (short bike ride in the summer or one subway stop in winter). For any readers looking to find the place, it is on N25 just 2 blocks north of the Namboku Line subway (Green line) exit. It is run by a couple of Nepalese people who are incredible cooks and always share a warm, friendly smile.

The cooks.

The aroma that hits you when you walk in defies description. I think that if I really needed to, I could survive on just the fulfulling odours alone. The food is all incredible. They serve around 30 different varieties of curry, make the best nan bread in Sapporo, have a variety of amazing tandoori meats and always bring us a hot cup of chai to finish the meal.

Mixed tandoori plate, curry with garlic nan, chai.

We just can't seem to get enough of this place and if it were closer to our apartment, we would probably end up there nearly every night. Seriously, the stuff is like crack to us.! We went for dinner on Monday night and found it was closed so ate at another place nearby. The entire next day we were both wrapped up in thinking about the closed sign in the window and that we just HAD to return the next night to fulfill our craving.

I guess the point of this little story is, if you find yourself in Sapporo and are looking for something other than fresh sushi, miso ramen, gengis kahn or soup curry (all Sapporo specialties) - Mohan Dish is the place. Itadakemasu!!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nice in Nice

Just in case the recent trip to Okinawa wasn’t enough sun to get me through the winter, I just returned from a great little trip to Nice, France. There was an oceanography meeting there that I attended and presented some of the research from last summer’s “rock dentistry” work. The trip to southern France from Hokkaido is a long one, and it took over 30 hours of travel.

I arrived ragged and late on a Friday night to an unattended but quaint hotel in Vieux Nice. I had arranged my late arrival with the staff who provided me the door code to the staff entrance. I buzzed myself in and found an envelope with my name on it in the narrow hallway and climbed the tiny stairway in search of my room. The building that this hotel is in is in the range of 250 years old but it was smartly renovated in a way that kept the old charm (can tiny steep staircases be called charm?) while incorporating a comfortable room with a full bathroom (here is a link to that hotel – Villa la Tour).

The next morning I moved to an apartment in Vieux Nice where I would stay for the duration of the conference (here is a link to the company – I rented the Chateau View). January is low season in the south of France and holiday apartments in the heart of the tourist area can be gotten easily and relatively cheaply. My apartment had a great view of the Chateau that overlooks the city and was only 2 blocks from the fresh produce and flower markets, and 3 blocks from the crystal blue Mediterranean. On my first day I hit the market and got groceries and stretched my legs on the Promenade d’Anglais along the waterfront.

The view of the Chateau from my window.
The doorway to my apartment.

On Sunday I walked to the Port of Nice – it sounds far but isn’t. It was crammed full of elegant, massive boats and bordered by beautiful old architecture. I also checked out the morning sun overlooking the city from the Chateau. I was pretty jetlagged so had been awake since 3:30 am waiting until the sun came up before I let myself get out of bed. Next stop, I checked out the Museum of Modern Art. The art museums in Nice are all free entry (except the Chagall museum), all they wanted to know was where I was from for statistical purposes. The museum was interesting, but being relatively unfamiliar with art, I probably missed the point of a lot of it. This is the only one I recognized.

By the afternoon the sun had warmed the city and the crowds were loaded into the sunny patios sipping wine. I thought it wise to follow local custom and found a nice sunny patio and followed suit. I enjoyed a demi-pitchet of rosé at a café on the Place do Palais. In the square, 2 boys practiced football shots against an ancient doorway; wayward rebounds barely missed passing tourists. A drunken French woman paced in front of the café shouting in French at the patrons. Pigeons drifted in and out of the scene, barely missing my head on countless occasions. The sun eventually slipped away, so did the wine, the drunk woman continued.

The conference started that evening with registration and more wine. From then on, I was in meetings pretty much right through the week (I won’t recount the details here) with the exception of Thursday when I planned to take a short trip to Monaco to see the oceanography museum and aquarium. Unfortunately, the French labour unions had other plans and had organized a massive nation-wide strike as a protest against recent financial plans and bail-out schemes in France, meaning that there would be no buses or trains running to Monaco. I took the opportunity to do some shopping in the morning and of course went to the central park where the protests were happening.

French protesters.

I still am not sure what happened (Sarkozy agreed that he had made bad decisions…?) but the buses were back online by the afternoon and the marches and dissipated. I spent the afternoon in the incredible Monaco Aquarium and Oceanography Museum. Who would imagine that the second smallest country in the world would have such a great collection! Prince Albert do Monaco was an avid oceanographer – hence the collections.

The Oceanography Museum of Monaco

The building itself is perched precariously overlooking the Mediterranean. The aquarium was a perfect contrast to the one in Okinawa I had also visited recently. The collection itself contained many more invertebrate species than had been contained in Okinawa – and let’s face it, invertebrates make up 95% or more of all marine species so let’s start showing them to people so that I can stop looking like a raving invertebrate lunatic. The panels labelling each display contained interesting and well prepared scientific information and were presented in French, English, German and Italian (unlike Okinawa where very few panels were presented and you were luck to find any English). And they used unique and creative lighting in the tanks to highlite the colour diversity of the animals. Overall, the Monaco aquarium was much smaller and older than Okinawa, but somehow the smells of saltwater and corroding metal seemed to authenticate the experience.

The upper floor housed the museum where collections included old oceanography tools and equipment, marine mammal skeletons and sea-inspired artwork. One of my favourite items in the collection was the Bushnell “Tortoise” submarine. This contraption was built by an American, Bushnell, in 1774, and like many great scientific developments, was used in the American war of Independence against British ships (really not sure how effective this little tub would have been, maybe that is what the drill on the top was for).

The main floor contained their polar exhibit that pays tribute to early polar science expeditions and demonstrates the dire circumstances faced by our polar regions due to climate change. The exhibit pulls no punches in its message for global responsibility and action on climate change. Overall, I liked the museum for its scientific approach. Particularly evident in the polar display, they were not afraid to present complex scientific ideas to the public. Messages such as these are important and it is about time that institutions stop worrying about careful politics and get these messages out and in our faces – and maybe most important, we need to start listening.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Robot Workforce

My time in Japan has provided me with a new and unique lens through which I viewed a recent feature on CBC's The National. The story shows the Japanese robotics industry in a fun and playful way, but at the heart of the story is another motivation. I applaude the CBC for showing this aspect of the story, if only briefly.

The decision by Japanese authorities to focus masses of national resources on solving a population/workforce crisis by developing robotics is fueled by their leading-edge technological savvy and a national obsession with robots. True, but there is also a more troubling component in the minds of some in the decision to invest so heavily in a robotic workforce, and that is avoidance of foreign labour. Arguments can, and have been made, for and against foreign labour in Japan and in reality there are already nearly 500,000 foreign workers in Japan, but the reference in the story to concerns over foreign crime rates is evidence that at least in some cases race plays a role in the drive to develop worker robots.

The debate over culturally acceptable racism and political remedies continues in Japan and I can't personally add much to the discussion. I can say with confidence that the receptionist robot is way too scary, and if I worked in the office with the security-bot I would probably snap and devise some sort of saltwater-in-the-wiring accident.

The link to the story is below. The video is about 12 mintues long, so if you don't have time to watch it, you will just have to take my word for it (the creepiness of the reception robot that is).

CBC's "Send in the Robots"

Monday, February 2, 2009

Whalesharks to Sea Snakes

Love the white plastic tarp look.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we relaxed so hard over the Christmas holiday that we earned ourselves a nice vacation in a warmer clime. We packed up our things, rallied the Goose and caught a flight to Naha in Okinawa. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Japan, it is a long, skinny country (group of islands really) that is oriented north to south. Hokkaido is the most northern part, and Okinawa is the most southern part, so our plan was to follow up our snowy wintery vacation with some serious beach time. The weather had other plans, but we still managed to have a great trip.

Arrows show Hokkaido and Okinawa.

We arrived, checked into our hotel then walked to the tourist strip to find some food. We ended up in a place that serves great local food and we all enjoyed Okinawan soba which is much different than soba from other parts of Japan. We strolled around and explored more of Kokusai Dori and worked up an appetite for that we quenched at a steak house! Yeah, steak!! Before coming to Okinawa I hadn’t realized that the American’s hadn’t relinquished their control over the islands of Okinawa until some time in the 1970’s meaning that most of the rebuilding effort (after they decimated it in the Battle of Okinawa near the end of WWII) was done with heavy American influence – hence the frequency of steak houses in Okinawa. The steak houses are now a big tourism draw with mainland Japanese families who vacation to Okinawa to see a bit of “American culture”.

The next day we explored a bit more of Naha. We walked through Tsuboya pottery district and saw the Shinkakuji temple. My sis was joining us in the fun and was scheduled to arrive later that day. I got a call from her in the afternoon, United Airlines, through a series of bumbling screw ups, had managed to have her miss a flight, then miss another connection and thus left her stranded in California and one day late arriving in Naha. We ended the day, without Ooots at a Mexican pub for dinner (again the American influence) where I had tacos!!! Yeah again!

We changed hotels the next day because the hotel we were in initially was part of a package with our flights. We moved to the Rasso Kokusai, a cheaper business hotel that was well situated and suited us perfectly. We rented a car in the morning and drove to Cape Hedo at the northern end of Okinawa Island.

Cape Hedo.

While there we stopped at a national park and took a couple hour walk through the unique karst (limestone) mountain overlooking the cape. The rocks were strange and big - but mostly just big... They had a couple beautiful Banyan trees in the park and loads of cycads.

After our little walk we returned to Naha to pick up the Ooostky. She arrived in one piece and exceptionally well rested after her complimentary night in a swank hotel during her unexpected layover.

The next day we woke up early and drove to the Rose Garden Diner for breakfast. A friend had recommended this place to me for some authentic American-style breakfast and we weren’t disappointed! The servings were enormous, the waitresses brought endless refills of coffee and the place even smelled like my grandmother’s house.

After a solid breakfast we drove to the aquarium where we spent 4 hours watching all the shows and exhibits. It is a great aquarium, a highly recommended stop while in Okinawa – after breakfast at Rose Garden of course! The biggest draw at the aquarium is the whale shark tank where they house 3 whale sharks (and other shark friends) in a massive tank with one whole side that is a 5 floor high viewing window. Amazing! One side of the tank overlooks the café so you can have lunch while the whale sharks glide past.

The sharks, and the viewing window are massive!
Lunch with the sharks.
Giant clam and cuttlefish - yeah for invertebrate content!

We wanted to get to Iheya Jima, a small island to the west of Okinawa Jima, but when we arrived at the ferry terminal we were told that the ocean was too rough and the ferries weren’t running (I told you the weather was bad!). Instead we went to Nago Pineapple Park and Winery. We took a tour of the small pineapple farm and living museum in an automatic pineapple cart, saw the shell museum and followed it up with pineapple wine tasting. All of this and they only charge 500 Yen to get in! What a steal! We bought a couple bottles of their wine, although we learned that there is a reason that pineapple wine hasn’t taken off in other parts of the world.

That night was stayed at On the Beach Lue, since we couldn’t make it to Iheya Jima. It is a great little place, not too far from the aquarium with beachfront rooms or condominium rooms. The food was fantastic, we ate both dinner and breakfast the next morning there. Breakfast was out on the patio overlooking the breaking waves on the beach. Had the weather been warmer, we would have been tempted to stay longer.
Breaky on the beach!

The weather had cleared a little so the ferries were running on schedule again so we took a trip to Iheya Jima for the night. We stayed at a nice simple hotel there and rented a car to drive the island. There was a cave at the northern end of the island we wanted to see so we climbed down into it and found a small shrine at the deepest part of the cave where three women were praying and singing. We didn’t want to disturb them too much so we didn’t explore the cave much, but we did sit quietly and listen to their voices echo through the cave. Along the other side of the island, goats roamed freely among the many farms on the island. The weather remained cold and windy so we did most of our exploring by car.

Dinner that night was at the only restaurant on the island (as far as we could tell anyway). It served up delicious Okinawan food for incredibly cheap. We stuffed ourselves then returned to our hotel for baths and a nightcap.

We were leaving Iheya the next day, so while waiting for the ferry we checked out one more interesting sight. In a small obscurely located park is an ancient pine (the lonely planet dates it at 300 years old, but the sign I read – in Japanese…….- said it was 500 years old, either way really old) that had been trained to grow in an umbrella shape. Pretty spectacular.

On our way back to Naha we stopped at A&W for a late lunch. Okinawa jima is littered with A&W’s, I couldn’t resist. This particular one still had the outdoor drive in style where they bring the food to the window of your car and you sit in the parking lot to eat it. I almost expected them to come out to the cars on rollerskates (they didn’t). Back in Naha we checked back into the Rasso, then had beers and snacks at the Helios pub on Kokusai Dori.

The weather was still pretty much crap and we were all still wearing the one and only cold weather outfit we brought so we decided to hang out in Naha for a day or two longer rather than try to make it over to Zamai Jima. We shopped, ate amazing food, watched sumo on TV in our hotel rooms, did a do-it-yourself pottery class in Tsuboya district and visited the Okinawa war museum to see the tunnels built by the Japanese army during the war of Okinawa.

With the forecast finally predicting better weather, we hopped on the ferry bound for Zamami Jima. Zamami has only a handful fewer residents than Iheya but closer proximity to Naha meant there were more places to stay, eat and things to do. We stayed in a nice little hotel in Zamami and on our second day there we rented snorkel gear (including wetsuits – it is south of Hokkaido, but not that far south) from the rental shop near the entrance to the hotel. We walked 1.5 kms over a small hill to an adjacent bay (Furozamami) and snokeled in the morning. We watched piles of striped black and white sea snakes swimming around the reef and even saw a lion fish there too. The visibility was incredible in this protected little beach and amazingly, we had it practically to ourselves. The sun was finally out and the beach was warm so we all took a short nap after our snorkel to rest up before an afternoon walk where we visited the whale observation towers and saw whales (they were a loooong way away, but definitely were whales). Zamami jima was a nice place and I recommend a visit to anyone in Naha who wants a quiet escape.

Our private snorkel beach.
Whale watching... no more like whale searching.

The restaurant across the road from the ferry dock was the best food in town and provided us with nearly all our meals. They make the best Okinawa soba in Okinawa (this was from a Quebequois/Japanese visitor, not from our meagre review). We enjoyed a glorious meal on our second night there, all of us pathetic pale Canadian sporting a pretty pink sunburn.

We departed Zamami and returned to Naha on the last possible ferry. We had one last night in Naha that we spent dining at the One-Pound-Steak-House. We all had the one-pounder, except my sister who is much more sensible than I (I didn’t finish mine, but did doggy bag it so I could enjoy it for breakky).

Okinawa in general for us was windy and cold (except the last two days which we spent baking on the beach) with amazing food and warm and welcoming people. I really enjoyed Okinawa and look forward to another chance to explore more of the islands.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Christmas and New Year Review

This year's festivities were jam packed with fun (hence this post coming out so late) and a bit unique. I will review here, in brief, the wild ride that was our winter holiday in Japan.

We kicked things off with a Christmas eve party and gift exchange at a friend's apartment. It was a multicultural affair (as so many social events are for us here) with people from all corners of the globe in attendance. Our host, a Brazillian, even worked some magic to obtain a delicious roast turkey to share on the pot luck table. The turkey was so good that this woman could not help herself and just sat on the floor, picking at the remaining scraps on the bones while she chatted on her phone.

The party was loads of fun, and ended as most fun parties do, with everyone wearing any costume they can get their hands on and dancing in the kitchen.

The next day, Christmas, didn't feel much like Christmas because in Japan all the shops stay open, people still go to work and life carries on as usual. Since we have been here a while now, we followed suit and went to work (weird!). I had a doctor's appointment in the afternoon to get my knee checked out - it had been giving me a bit of trouble, but as most of you know, that is nothing new.... Christmas day was just another day for us.

As I have mentioned before, turkey isn't something that you can just drop by the supermarket to buy here. Nor is it something that you can cook in a typical Japanese kitchen with the "oven" that is scarcely big enough to toast a single piece of bread. So this year we booked ourselves a reservation at our of our favorite watering hole for turkey dinner. Yes, you heard me right, sacrilege and blasphemy, we ate our Christmas dinner in a pub this year. The pub is called TK6 (click here to see their website) and is run by a couple guys from Australia who serve up some of the finest international food in Sapporo. Our turkey dinner was no exception, everything was prepared to perfection and we left there stuffed.

Mmmmm... Turkey....

We were joined by some friends and their families for dinner which helped to make the atmosphere more festive, particularly because there were a couple of kids running around the table wearing new clothes and playing with toys that santa brought them.

Shortly after Christmas, we had a guest join us for some snowy Sapporo fun. The Goose flew all the way from blizardy Alberta to rip up the ski slopes and ring in 2009 with us! Yeee Haw!

We all rocked out at karaoke together.

He spent a day at work with Shawn and SnowmobileLand. Unfortunately the day was slammed with tourists so there wasn't much fun snowmobile play time that day.

We rang in the New Year at another fun house party. This party was dominated by South Americans and as is typical of such a demographic, it degraded into a hip shaking dance party once the champagne and hugs were out of the way.

After a much needed day of rest, we rented a car and dove to the Daisetsuzan National park to see some fat snow. We had hoped to rent snowshoes there and wander around in the forest, but the rental place was closed for the holiday season. We settled for a ride on the ropeway to the top of Asahidake instead. Unfortunately, that day was a white-out blizzard at the top of the mountain so there wasn't much to see except white.

We returned to Sapporo and skiied and snowboarded on Teine mountain overlooking Sapporo. Aside from the ski school kids, there weren't many people on the hill and we had a great day. My snowboarding skills still lag far behind the Goose on skis (he is like a ballerina on those things!), but at least I am no longer leaving the hill concussed.
Keeping warm on the lift.

Me & Goosie looking over Sapporo.

The Goose was so enamoured with the high tech Japanese toilet seats that he took one home with him as a souvenier. He phoned a friend on new year's eve to ask him to measure the dimensions of the typical Canadian toilet bowl to make sure it would fit, but his friend gave no reply and probably assumed the query was a practical joke or that we were all being drunk and silly.

What a fun winter holiday we had! So fun in fact, that we were too exhausted to return to work so we flew down to Okinawa for some hard earned rest and relaxation (we seriously did - I will post soon about the fun times there!).

Nice jacket Goosie!