Thursday, June 24, 2010


It has been almost a week since I have been back from Japan now. It's funny, I was only there for two weeks, but I missed it with such intensity that it is unbelievable. It is quite depressing to be back in NYC where everyone is just naturally rude and there is no planned activities, except my summer job, but I am thankful for the memories I was able to create during my short excursion. My eyes are open to so many things about the world and, more importantly, myself. I find my outlook on life and how I view myself drastically different than it was before I left. I definitely underestimated the influence this trip would have on me, bt I am happy for the change. I will strive to change myself for the better so that I will be ble to make the most out of my next trip to Japan.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto castle was my favorite tourist sight and there wasn't a nicer day to view it. Don't let the blue skies, peaceful garden, and intricate decorative detail of the castle fool you because on the inside the castle is structurally equipped for battle. There are holes in the floor and walls for throwing rocks and shooting guns and its war exhibition is completed with genuine set of armor. While not the most exciting activity we did in Japan, it was quiet and peaceful unlike many tourist spots which was appreciated in the craziness in traveling.

An Evening in Asakusa

An Evening in Asakusa

Probably my favorite time in Japan. There are interesting buildings, great souvenir shops, and the best part in my opinion, delicious food. One thing I have learned about Japanese cuisine is that it often has the 'make it as you like it' mentality. As in you get the food then you cook it to your tastes. This dinner was especially interesting because we made Japanese style pancakes, several of them in fact. And they weren't filled with banana or chocolate chips topped with syrup. They were meat, cabbage, curry, and cheese pancakes topped with a sweet plum sauce. It was ridiculously tasty to say the least. Yet another thing that will be sorely missed.

Friday, June 18, 2010


"Daibutsu" is the Japanese word for "big buddha" and Japan's second biggest (almost 44 feet high) sits in the gorgeous seaside town of Kamakura.  On Wednesday, we were lucky enough to visit the Great Buddha of Kamakura.  Totally amazing.  One of my favorite sights this trip.  This Daibutsu is a bronze statue that dates back to 1252.  Originally, it sat inside the main hall in the Kotokuin Temple, but the buildings were decimated by a massive tidal wave in the 15th century.  Since then the Buddha has been unprotected from the elements.  As you can see from these pictures, the extensive weathering of the bronze has only increased the statue's beauty and given depth and texture to its serene visage. 

During our visit, I sat for a long time on a stone--a former pillar base for the temple--in front of the Buddha; meanwhile my travel colleagues toured the giant bronze statue's innards. One of them observed that I must be tired from the long day of tourist-ing (we'd already visited a Shinto temple and another Buddhist site).  What they didn't know was that I experienced a great peace sitting in the Diabatsu's perfect contemplation and was in no hurry to absent myself from that kind of grace--rare in any circumstances but especially when traveling.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Punk Tokyo

On Sunday night, a few of the other visiting faculty and I attended a show of live music at a small, basement-level punk club called 'Statto' in the Musashi-Sakai neighborhood.  One of our Technos faculty hosts plays in a band that appeared on the bill's showcase of locals.  All the bands were fantastic and the company was great.  More than anything, though, I was just so delighted to find myself within a Tokyo scene so completely off the tourist grid. 

My counter-cultural explorations of the city continued the following day as Monday I headed into the bohemian Kōenji neighborhood, considered to be the birthplace of the Tokyo punk scene, where I had lunch with a musician/translator/filmmaker (a friend of a friend) who lives and works in Tokyo.  Later that day, I explored the more upscale Shibuya area neighborhoods of Ebisu and Daikanyama, whose sloping hillside back-alleys are particularly charming and full of marvelous discoveries. The only downside to an overall fabulous day was that the constant rainfall kept me from pulling out my camera to capture the splendor and quirky charms of these little neighborhoods and that the route of my perigrinations required a lot of train time, much of it spent waiting for transfers. 

Ah, the infamous onigiri. It is a quick, delightful snack that is known for its many flavors and convenience. But even more than that, it is known for being ridiculously hard to open! I, being the slightly overconfident person that I am, decided to devour and conquer. Leaving out the details, basically I failed. Sure, I ate it. But was all the nori there when I did? No. Did it still look like a triangle? No. Did it still taste good? Yes! Anyway, maybe I am not as competent as I thought I was, but it was definitely worth the failure.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"Thank you for your kindness."

This is what it says at the bottom of the signs that are posted throughout subway cars here in Tokyo informing riders of the central etiquette rules, such as respecting designated seating for the disabled, aged, and pregnant and occupying only the space designated for one derriere (in contrast to those New York subway riders who feel entitled to sit in between single seat spaces, for example).  But "Thank you for your kindness" has become my personal Japan mantra.  The national culture is famous for its hospitality but hospitality, to my mind, is a concept that suggests ritual obligation (another national stereotype) rather than sincere generosity and other-directedness and my experience in Japan, especially with regard to our Technos hosts, has been grounded in incredible, fulsome kindness.  In addition to the beauty of the Japanese countryside and the rich wellspring of experiences of all stripes (just at the level of eyecandy alone!) that is I haven't been able to blog for a few days as Wednesday through Friday we were away from Tokyo as guests at the "Green Village" resort Midori no Mura, which is in the Nagano prefecture north of the city.  On the way to Midori no Mura, we stopped off at Mt. Fuji.  It was overcast and windy, still set with snow and snowmelt and extremely dangerous for climbers, so even if we were trying to see more of the mountain than can be accessed from the midway point where the bus/car-route ends, we wouldn't be able to.  The climbing season opens in July.  One of the other visiting students (from Pembroke College, Oxford University) is staying past the end of our trip, in part to climb Fuji with her parents, who will be flying in from England, on July 1.  Even on a cold cloudy day, Fuji was a beautiful sight to behold, but remember: the mountain is an active volcano!

The trip to Midori no Mura was fabulous.  The resort is famous for its natural hot springs, which faculty and students made full use of.  I was especially grateful for the access to medicinally hot mineral waters as, the night before our departure for the spa, I fell ill with a terrible cold which threatened to become a sinus infection.  A day of rest, the constant care and attention of my new Technos friends (including the wonderful group of visiting faculty I've been a part of), and regular dunking in the hot springs brought me back to health by Friday, which unfortunately, was the day we had to leave the countryside and head back to Tokyo.  On the way,  we stopped off at another of the region's natural wonders, Shiraito no Taki (White Springs waterfall).  It was such a beautiful and unusual waterfall that the Technos group spent a long time shooting this wide horseshoe-shaped waterfall from its various angles.  In the shot below, visiting faculty Joe and Technos faculty Matt consult each other about the perfect shot.

This was my best attempt:
I also took these shots of Kaad and Astrid:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

GREAT dinner in downtown Tokyo

I had the best dinner tonight that I have had in a very long time. I was able to experience Japanese dining at its finest tonight; instead of each person getting their own individual meals, we ordered food to share with each other the entire night. It was fantastic. I knew that this was part of the culture, but eating that way, with everyone sharing with each other was truly a wonderful experience! I cannot wait to see what else Japan holds in store for me!!!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Grand welcom at Technos College!

Yesterday Technos gave us the warmest welcome to their campus possible.  To say that we were treated like rock stars is no exaggeration.   After our red carpet debut (again, no hyperbole here --there really was a red carpet, and throngs of cheering Technos students!), we had a lovely welcoming party, tours of the and, for the faculty, a more intimate introduction to Technos instructors, with whom we're having dinner tonight.  I followed up on my full day at Technos with a venture into the Shinjinku district to meet my old Bates friend Roberta, now a professor of Asian Studies at SUNY-Binghamton, who is in Tokyo for the month.  Our adventures in the Golden Gai district culminated with the Grail of our questing--a teeny tiny little (big enough for one small table and three people packed at the bar, with no room to walk--once you're sat, you stay put) bar named by the cineaste owner after Chris Marker's gorgeous 1962 film La Jetée.  The walls were plastered with obscure film posters where they weren't taken up with shelves of bottles and stacks of old cassette tapes.  There was also one snapshot tacked to the bar that had been taken of/by some patrons.  In it, there are three or four (hard to tell -- it's crowded) people sitting at the bar, including a shlubby bearded middle-aged American; and then I realized, "oh, that's Coppola."
I'm running out the door to begin a new day of adventures--including a presentation on Bates Astrid and Kaad and I have put together, and a formal program of introduction to Japanese culture--and plan to post more pictures from the first day when I next get a chance.   In the meanwhile, enjoy the picture of Kaad and Astrid basking in the glow of their rockstar treatment and the fulsomely gorgeous hospitality of our hosts.  And enjoy this display of plastic ice cream treats.  Plastic food--a chief means of publicizing the type and quality of their food for restaurants in Japan-- is an art form here.
Unlike Prof. Osucha, I am not entering Japan with any particular goals to achieve. Rather, I am just keeping an open mind and a willingness to try anything. So that would bring me to one of my first interesting Japanese experiences. It started with the hotel's toilet.

First of all, I would just like to say that this is a rather small bathroom. Simply turning about the cramped space has me banging into the towel rack, toilet and sink all at once. But that is not the most spectacular part of the lavatory.

The most fascinating part by far would be the toilet. This bathroom wonder had me both frightened and amazed. When I sat upon it, hoping to relieve my self in peace, a loud flow of water could be heard coming from its depths. In a panic I proceeded to push every button and turn every dial on the control panel beside me. And what did I get from my efforts? An unexpected spray of water to my hind end. And I dare say it was rather refreshing. An interesting experience indeed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

5 things I'm looking forward to eating

Some times, it's best to approach new experiences tongue first.  Or at any rate, that's going to be my approach to Tokyo.  In just a few days, I'll be leaving for a new country, new city, new culture.  Everything is so new and different and exciting that the long list of firsts waiting for me around the corner is almost overwhelming.  So, I've decided to focus on first tastes--new food and drink to which I'm looking forward.  In no particular order, here's a list of five things that are at the top of my "to do" (make that "to eat & drink") list:

1. Daifuku
These are little mochi (glutinous rice cakes) stuffed with any number of sweet filling.  Azuki are commonly made with a red bean paste made from azuki beans (and so, in terms of filling, not unlike Chinese mooncakes).  In my foodie research, I've seen some gorgeous photographs of daifuku filled with whole pieces of fruit -- especially strawberries or other berries -- inside and other sweet-bean paste variations.  I am looking forward to consuming the beauty of these little sweets as much as I am their lovely taste and delicate texture. 

2. Takeda c1000 Vitamin Lemon Drink

My only disappointment about this fabulous opportunity to travel to Japan is that it does not coincide with the summer Tokyo plans of my dear friend Sarah.  Sarah is a Tokyo denizen of long-standing and manages to make it back to the city--her home for over a decade--every summer for academic research and reconnecting with friends.  Unfortunately, my own travel itinerary ends just before she arrives.  But she's giving me plenty of virtual guidance, like the suggestion that I try one of these little hyper-vitaminy fizzy drinks that the Japanese adore.  It's only 140ml--just a few mouthfuls worth--and supposedly as tasty as it is potent.

3. "artisanal tofu" from Tofuya Ukai

I've been a vegetarian for twenty years.  I'm no stranger to the tofu in its infinite variations.  But the kind of artisanal tofu that they make at Tofuya Ukai, the former sake restaurant turned gourmet tofu temple, is something I've never before had the pleasure of meeting on my plate.  A recent Food & Wine article on the restaurant by a friend of a friend describes a multi-course lunch that has me coming undone at the mere thought of all this lusciousness:
"Once we settle in on our tatami mats, a kimono-wearing waitress brings out the first course: unbelievably creamy, handmade walnut tofu. We linger over it, but the courses that follow are just as outstanding. There's luscious deep-fried and chargrilled tofu with sweet miso and egg custard; namafu, an ultradense wheat gluten, served with persimmon and sesame sauce; and tofu nabe, a hot pot of soothing, fresh, snowy-white tofu simmering over coals with soy milk."

4. Chu-Hai

Back home in the states, I am disinclined toward pre-bottled cocktails, wine coolers, alcopops such as Bacardi Breezers or Smirnoff Ice, etc. etc.  The reasons for this are many but chief among them is this: I am an adult.  However, I do not plan to let my longstanding status as a grownup and my general aversion to mass-marketed fruity-alcoholic beverages keep me from sampling chu-hai.   Fruit-flavored, fizzy schochu drinks in a can.  (Shochu, for the uninitiated, is a Japanese distilled beverage made from rice, barley, or other grains.)  The come in a zillion flavors -- ume sounds especially tasty -- and are known more for their kitschy and nostalgic (I'm sure this is every Japanese teenager's introduction to drinking) qualities rather than taste.  

5. Matcha flavored Morinaga Caramels

Morinaga caramels are a well-known brand of Japanese caramels from a company with a more than 100-year tradition.  Fans of the caramels note that they are less salty than American caramels, generally softer and with more subtle, herbal notes.  I am a big fan of all things sweet and salty (when back home in Maine, I am hopelessly addicted to Coastline Confection's dark chocolate River Mill bar, which is spiked with Maine Sea Salt) so the idea of a less-than-salty caramel leaves me a little bit meh--what's the point?).  But here's what intrigues me about these little Morinaga sweets: they come in "matcha" flavor.  Matcha is powdered green tea.  It powers that impossibly delicate/strong taste that green tea ice cream delivers and Morinaga packs it into a caramel confection.  In which case, I forgive said caramel's lack of salty goodness and predict thoroughgoing devotion.