Monday, January 29, 2007

Cup Noodles

It was reported earlier this month that the inventor of the ubiquitous cup noodles,Ando Momofuku, died in Osaka aged 96.
From the various reports I read including a small piece from the Chicago Tribune, he spent about ten years after World War 2 developing and perfecting his recipe.
He finally succeeded and began marketing the worlds first instant noddles called Chicken Ramen in Japan in 1958.The product became a big hit and instant "Cup Noodle" followed in 1971.
It wasnt until 1970 that instant noodles reached America.A representative of Nissin Foods in America which markets the product is quoted as giving the reasons for its popularity..."Its the cost.And its filling.And the taste."
As the photo shows there are now a variety of flavours available including seafood,cheese and curry.

ThunderBirds in Japan

I went along to a small "Thunderbirds In Japan" exhibition last weekend.Held on the eighth floor of the Parco Building in Sakae,Nagoya it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first screening of the show in Japan by NHK.
On display are various marionettes,models,clothes and other memorabilia from the popular British 60s programmes.
There were several mockup sets of Tracy Island where International Rescue is based.
In the background a television played clips from various episodes.Overhead music from the show playing loudly on a short repetitive loop made normal conversation well nigh impossible.
There were a lot of souvenirs such as T shirts,books and models for sale near the exit point.Admitance for adults is 500yen.There are only Japanese captions on the displays which is a bit of a let down as was the deafening music which doesnt encourage one to linger over the exhibits.The exhibition finishes February 12th.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday Flash..Toilet Humor

One recurring and amusing sight in Japan is the confusion in the use of the letters "b" and "v".Their pronunciation and use in spelling is often mixed up.The words "banana" and "vanilla" is one example that springs immediately to mind.
The sign above, in Nara, is another illustration of this.Obvivously its meant to show where the nearest washroom is but even then it would be incorrectly spelt.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cell. Best American Essays 2006.

Cell by Stephen King.473 pages.Hodder and Stoughton.
An event known as The Pulse infects cellphones and spreads virus like around the world.Cellphone users turn into murderous zombies or "phone-crazies".Only those without phones are unaffected-the so-called "normies".The novel focuses on a small band of normies and their flight from Boston.

Think of it as a mini "The Stand" with fewer characters and pages.As usual the mayhem and chaos is described in the way that only King can do."Her upper lip had turned completely inside out,revealing a pink velvet lining as intimate as a vulva"(page 9) or "She was splattered with blood,bits of cloth and globbets of smoking flesh"(page 247).

The book turns into a journey towards the inevitable final showdown much like many of his earlier works such as "It" and obviviously "The Stand".On the way there is time for the characters to ponder about technology,computers and madness.
In summary you know what you are getting with a Stephen King book.In this case its a pretty good read that kept me entertained for a week or so on my 45 minute train trips to work and back.

Footnote..I chanced upon a podcast interview with Stephen King on website of publishers Simon and Schuster).The interview is interesting as the author explains how he came up with the idea and why he choose Boston as the location.He also puts forth in the interview (February 9 2006) his views on cellphones and technology in general.Well worth a listen.

The Best American Essays 2006.Edited by Lauren Slater.Houghton Mifflin.264 pages.

In her introduction editor Lauren Slater writes that "The essays in this volume are powerful,plainspoken mediations on birthing,dying and the business between".
Unfortunately many of the twenty essays she chose deal with dying.Unrelentingly so.Death hangs like a pall of gloom over this edition.
The death of pet dogs and goldfish.The loss of a spouse.Cemeteries.Deaths of author friends and authors never met.Death of mothers and fathers.
Surely there were essays on other subjects equally worthy of inclusion in this volume.It was with a sense of relief then that an essay on lefthandeness,one on celebrity and another on grammar broke the morbid tone.Briefly.
As one of the authors,Eugene Goodheart, wrote"I told a friend that I was writing about aging and dying and he said you have to be funny or lighthearted otherwise who would want to read it?".
Indeed who.
As with this years Short Stories collection I read earlier this was also somewhat disappointing.In this case it was the lack of variety of subject matter rather than the quality of writing that turned me off.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday Flash

Sake Barrels..Nara

Barrels of sake are broken open (kagami biraki) during Shinto festivals and ceremonies such as weddings,the launch of new businesses or the celebration of sporting victories.The sake used is called iwai-zake and is served free to all to spread good luck.In the New Year a special type of iwai-zake named toso is consumed.
The phrase kagami biraki also refers to a practice that happens around January 11 each year.During the holidays prior to New Year an offering of mochi (sticky rice cakes that have been pounded) is placed in the house altar or tokonoma as an offering to the gods or deities who visit over the period.The ornamental mochi is then removed on January 11th and broken into pieces by hand or hammer before being eaten. (Check Wikipedia for more details).

Monday, January 15, 2007


Despite there being eight World Heritage sites in its vicinity and being Japans first real capital city I only ventured to Nara last weekend.Quite fortuitous,timing wise,as I was able to witness the Yamayaki or Grass Burning Festival on Saturday night.This festival involves the setting fire to long grass on a hill above the Nara Koen reserve.The second photo below shows the aftermath of the fire on the hill the morning after.

From the JR Nara Station (which is located near the middle of the city) Nara looks like any other Japanese location.Grey.Concrete.The usual suspects are evident.Lawson,Mr Donuts,and KFC encircle the carpark.However a brisk five minute walk brings you to Nara Koen reserve from where many of the sites are within walking distance.The guidebooks I read suggest that you can see the main ones in a full day.However I took a more relaxed two day approach to give me ample time to see things without being aware of time constraints and the need to "tick off" another temple and move to the next.

Of the major sites I visited I would recommend Todai-ji without hesitation.Apart from the huge entrance gates Todai-ji Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) is the largest wooden building in the world.As the details on the admission ticket point out the current structure(the third) is in fact only two thirds the size of the original.

The Hall houses a massive Daibutsu (Great Buddha) which is one of the largest cast bronze figures in the world.It stands or sits at a daunting sixteen metres or so tall and weighs in at four hundred and thirty seven odd tonnes.

Also noteworthy is the five storey pagoda (Goju-no to) the second tallest of its type in Japan and Kofuku-ji Kokuhokan the National Treasure Hall which contains a variety of statues,figures and objects from previous structures;most of which were destroyed by fire.
If one walks in a southern direction away from the pagoda and Nara Koen you can wander about in the Naramachi area where there are still some old style warehouses and homes (machiya) in use.

Finally,Kasuga Taisha Shrine is also worth the effort to visit.The walks to the shrine are bordered with lichen covered lanterns offering many photo opportunities and a pleasant meander under the trees.

There are various ways to get to Nara.I took a longer,cheaper option.Some three and a half hours or so and two thousand two hundred yen by train.There are some cheap hotel choices around both the JR and Kintetsu stations.I would recommend you book ahead to reserve a room as there seems to a festival of one type or other on nearly every weekend.
I dont why I left it so long to visit Nara.Its certainly walkable and easily accessible.
It also, in my opinion, has in its favor a less crowded modern environment than Kyoto.Unfortunately both cities now only seem to have pockets or islands of "old Japan" left among the surge of concrete and modern construction that threaten to completely overwhelm them and the atmosphere these areas once had.

Oh Deer

Think Nara.Think Deer.Deer are synonymous with Nara.They have been for centuries.Cunning,cloven pick-pockets.Ready to dispossess unwary tourists of food or anything else they carry.Deer biscuits-shika sembei (small circular cracker like biscuits)are readily available from street vendors.

Deer souvenirs and paraphernalia seem to hang from every doorway.Hello Kitty and other character goods incorporating deer catch the tourists eye and wallets. Posters adorned with them plaster walls.Manhole covers bear their designs.

My favorite souvenir was the box below.The illustration on the box means no translation is necessary.Potential purchasers can readily identify the contents.Deer pooh confectionery.Chocolate surrounded by mochi (pounded sticky rice).Quite sweet and a real conversation starter.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Flash

Nova Pocky
I was somewhat surprised this week to see my company had its mascot (a pink rabbit or usagi) plastered over packets of Pocky confectionery.I dont know if there is a relationship between education and chocolate.Where or what will it be advertising,cigarettes?

Monday, January 08, 2007


This Japanese word neatly encapsulates what I did this past New Years break.The Japanese language often describes in one or two words what other languages struggle to convey in one or two sentences.
Basically I spent the break lying around my apartment,sleeping,eating,reading and watching a bit of tv.I also tried to do some paper mache stuff.Due to the low temperatures the drying times were more extended than in summer so not a lot was done.

The first sumo tournament of the new year got underway yesterday in Tokyo.Once again the sole yokozuna,Asashoryu,is the favorite to win.His nearest rival,Hakuho, is on the comeback after missing the last tournament having broken one of his toes.
If Asa wins it will be his 20th Emperors Cup victory bringing him equal with former yokozuna Takanahana on the alltime winners list.

Today Monday January 8th marked Coming of Age day.Youths who turn 20 years of age celebrate their new status as adult on this national holiday.Various celebrations and ceremonies are held nationwide attended by the new "adults" wearing formal suits and stylish fur collared kimomos.

Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It...

This was the scene in Tajimi,Gifu Prefecture. Mid morning, yesterday, Sunday.A cold front from Asia dropped snow over wide areas of Japan and also brought strong winds.The snow didnt fall for long and the weather had cleared by late afternoon.The snow had turned to a wet dirty slush.The photo was taken by my co-worker Andrew.Cheers mate.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Friday Flash

New Years Cards

A traditional part of the Japanese New Year is the sending of New Years cards to friends,relatives,coworkers and schoolmates.The cards(nengajo) are delivered on January 1st though they are available for sale from the middle of December.

As a matter of politeness should you have a death in the family during the year you dont send nengajo.Instead you send a simple card to people who then refrain from sending nenegajo out of respect for the deceased.

The cards usually have a design of the current Chinese astrological character and a simple greeting.This year is the Year of the Boar so cards have pig designs.Cards can be purchased at many places and there is software available to enable you to make your own style and messages.The Japan Post Office sells nengajo with a series of numbers on the bottom of each card.There is a prize draw in mid January and you can win a variety of gifts from televisions to stamps.
Writing the cards can be an onerous task.A few students I spoke to were sending over 200 cards.Some were using software to write the cards while others were handwriting them...

Monday, January 01, 2007

2007...The Year of The Pig

Shinen omedeto gozaimasu.
Happy New Year.
Under the Chinese twelve year astrological cycle we are now in the year of the pig or boar.The pig is associated with fertility and virility.People born during these years are said to be gallant,loyal and studious.They are also somewhat reticent,tolerant but also can be quick-tempered.People born in the year of the pig include Elton John,Borat and Stephen Harper, the current Canadian Prime Minister.

People born in the last of the twelve year cycle,(the year of the rat being the first,the pig the last), are also said to possess great honesty.Looking back over 2006 there seemed to be an honesty deficit in Japan.Three major stories last year concerned fraud or dishonesty.
Firstly, theres the trial in progress of Horie Takafumi, LiveDoor Company founder. Arrested for securities fraud and fraudulent accounting practices the demise of his company led to a spectacular if temporary fall in the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Secondly,linked with the LiveDoor action is the trial of prominent fund manager, Murakami Yoshiaki,accused of insider trading after allegedly receiving a tipoff from the company.
Thirdly, architect Aneha Hidetsugu was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for the falsification of building documents linked to their earthquake resistance.

And dont forget both local and national politicians when considering the subject of honesty and legitimate business practices.At least three Prefectural Governors were forced from their posts in the last year due to financial irregularities or bid rigging.

On the national stage there was the recent resignation of Government Tax Commission Chief Masaaki Honma.He was picked by Prime Minister Abe because he was in favor of selling off state assets in line with Abe's views.Abe replaced his predecessor as Abe didnt share his view the consumption tax needs to be raised to cope with rising social security costs.
Unfortunately for Honma,a local weekly magazine reported he was living with a girlfriend in a government funded condominium. The same type of state asset he favoured selling off.While his resignation may have been for political reasons I felt there was also a certain "moral outrage" concerning his personal life.He denied he was living with the woman merely "dating her" and was divorcing his wife.
Finally in the last week of December Genchiro Sata, Administrative Reform Minister resigned due to alleged false funding reports submitted by some of his political support groups. Following on from the Tax Commission Chiefs resignation this one will put more pressure on Abe's government both in terms of pushing ahead with reforms and the upcoming Diet elections in 2007.

One can only hope that 2007 proves to be a more transparent honest year...