Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Flash..Anko

I spotted these colourful sweets in the local Daiei supermarket.Shopping between showers earlier today Im surprised how many people werent carrying umbrellas despite it being the middle of the rainy season and the leaden clouds threatening to explode into torrents of water at any moment.
The sweets,I was reliably informed by the cashier,are anko or crushed red azuki bean paste that has been sweetened with sugar and water.Despite their appearance they taste rather bland to me,the reason being Ive been told that they balance the strong,bitter matcha or green tea with which they are often served.
Anko paste filling often pops up in various bread products which can be a shock to the unwary.Ive managed to remember and recognise the three simple kanji that denote anko so usually check the labels before making a purchase.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Book Review..

The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Simon Winchester.1998.Penguin Books.198 pages.

This is the second Winchester book Ive read.He seems to have the knack of unearthing stories that are stranger than fiction.He seems to possess the ability and gift to find unusual characters and vividly bring them to life through detailed descriptions of their social circumstances and place them in a context a simple reader like myself can grasp.
This book concerns two different men and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary that brought them together.
The author traces the early history of dictionaries and the background leading up to the decision to create the OED, its birth pangs and slow development through to its completion.

The sheer logistics,organisation and paperwork in pre-computer Victorian society are impressive.
"The total length of type-all handset,for the books were done by letterpress is 178 miles the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester".(pg 189).
Further down the same page"Discounting every punctuation mark and every space...there are no fewer than 227,779,589 letters and numbers"(pg 189).

The author has a highly readable style.Each chapter is headed with a dictionary style defintion of a word from the OED.This serves two purposes.Obvivously the word is relevant to the chapter it starts.It also illustrates the depth of each defintion and the scholarship involved in producing the dictionary.
An interesting,diverting read.Recommended.

For A Variety of Reasons..

The current Nova saga ground on in the background last week overtaken by other stories including a meat plant scandal in Hokkaido and the bigger Social Insurance Agency story that dominated the papers and media before and since the Nova one surfaced.
A small article featured in The Japan Times Sunday 17th June which described plans to issue further shares and possible commercial tie ups.It was also noted a company net loss of 2.5 billion yen loss for the year ending March 31st.

Meanwhile at work staff continue to wallpaper the building with posters of short sales campaigns and apologies.
Nothing in English.Except for a fax from Anders Lundquist Director of the Education Quality Control Center addressed to all instructors. It begins "It has been announced in the media,that for a variety of reasons,the Ministry of Economy,Trade and Industry has required the company to suspend enrollment of new students in courses of longer than one year in duration and courses of more than 105 lessons(70 hours of study) for a period of six months."
It goes on to explain that "the President has issued an apology to students for any worry or concern that this may have caused".

No hint of contrition or acknowledgement of culpability or the fact instructors were also feeling uncertain and have to rely on media reports and speculation.
Still my heart was warmed by his closing remarks."Thank you for your continued efforts to provide high quality lessons to our students".

Friday, June 22, 2007

Friday Flash...Rainy Season

Although the rainy season officially started last week round here,today Friday is the first time that we've any substanial rainfall.It was raining when I woke up and now towards the evening it shows no sign of abating.
One shrub that flourishes this time of year is the hydrangea or ajisai.There are many of the plants coming into bloom now.The flowers come in a myriad of colours ranging from pinkish red through to purple and deep blue.
The original Japanese species is gaku-ajisai or big leaved hydrangea and many ornamental varieties have been developed from this native type.Some of these ornamental species especially those with pink and white flowers were developed overseas and then re-imported back into Japan.The damp,dank weather and grey cloudy skies add to the flowers subtle colours.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Book Review..Waterloo

I recently read two books on what is probably one of the most written and published campaigns.
The first was Waterloo.A Near Run Thing.David Howarth.Phoenix Paperback.1968. 196pages
Despite only being 196 pages its a very detailed account.It comes with lots of maps,portraits of the leading figures and photos of the battlefield.
The author covers such things as weapons and tactics of the day and describes the various arms such as artillery,cavalry and infantry.Medical treatment and the aftermath of the battle are also included.
The book opens on the dawn of the final day and concludes later that night.In the intervening pages you get a good overview of the campaign with its ebb and flow and the final outcome on the evening of the 18th June 1815.

The second is entitled Four Days in June.Iain Gale.Harper.2007.369pages
The author notes in the final pages that this is a novel rather than a history of the Waterloo campaign.
It follows five men who fought in those four days.Prussian,French and English among them.Both lower ranks and officers.Some obviviously figure in both books because of the significant part they played.
Both authors use some artistic licence to try and get inside the mindsets of the participants.While Howarth relates and describes things as an author,Gale often will have the characters explain the details in their conversations.An example of this would be a pun about field officers which Howarth explains while Gale has two of the characters telling the joke.
Being a shorter book Howarth offers a more general overview of the battle.By settling on a few crucial players Gale gives a sense of how the individual soldier can only see a part of the whole picture and action.Being a longer book almost twice the length of Howarths he can flesh out the characters using diaries and other material from the era.
You also have to remember that Howarths book was published some 30 years ago.It seemed a more scholarly work than Gales which I would put in the category of popular history similiar to Stephen E Ambrose's Band of Brothers.
Read in conjunction these books gave me a good background to the battle.I would suggest using the maps in Howarths book while reading the final pages of Gales book will also help you understand what is happening on the battlefield.

LunchBox Snack

A small bento or lunchbox from the local Daiei supermarket.As well as being colourful I liked the polystyrene container with its cane basket like pattern.If you look carefully the small red saveloy has small zig zag cuts in it so someone took time to assemble and make the bento.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday Flash..Nova in the News Again

Works been in the news again this week.Again for all the wrong reasons.Headline news on NHK television.Headlines in the two main English language broadsheets on Thursday.More fodder for the local tabloids.

In a nutshell METI the Ministry of Economy,Trade and Industry ordered Japan's largest English language school chain from solicting or accepting applications for contracts longer than a year or new contracts exceeding 70 hours.The order will stand for six months and is the result of investigations earlier in the year in connection with the law regulating commercial practices and cancellation of contract procedures.In February METI inspected the company's headquarters in Osaka.

One of the more vitriolic reports quoted an METI offical thus "We have concluded that Nova's way of soliciting students was extremely malicious..."It engaged in illegal acts, with the top management at its head office authorizing the irregularities"....
"the company even compiled a manual advising staff about how to respond to claims by the students".
In addition students complained about their inability to book lessons despite Nova's claim to prospective students they can book lessons "any time" they wanted.METI found this practice to be giving a "false account" of its services which violates the Specified Commercial Transaction Law that covers consumers.

Theres been no offical word at work about the situation.On Thursday(yesterday)the Japanese staff at my branch were busy stapling notices to the walls for students.They either couldnt or wouldnt translate the Japanese notice.I watched the NHK news on Thursday night after work and it said the notices urged the students to help in "the rebirth of Nova".It will be interesting to see if theres an offical English translation and what the company line will be.Also interesting to see what the results will be of this suspension order.Fewer new students?branch cutbacks? maybe all just idle speculation..

(The Japan Times 14th June,The Daily Yomiuri 14th June, 15th June
MSN-Manichi Daily News 15 June 2006)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Book Review..

The Places In Between. Rory Stewart.2004 Picador.324pages.
This book recounts the authors walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul.Just after the fall of the Taliban in January 2002.
He follows the route taken by the Mogul Emperor Babur and quotes relevant sections of his diary throughout the book.Some things such as the severe climate,harsh environment and feudal society seem little changed since Barbur was born in 1480.
On his trek he encounters different factions and leaders.Some fought against the Russians,others against the Taliban some the Northern Alliance.
I got the impression that the political and military situation is as fractured as the mountains and as unforgiving and harsh as the plains and desert between.

Stewart has a great eye for detail and descriptions of people,buildings and animals.
"There was something ponderous about his movements.There was no eagerness,no playfulness and no curiosity.I couldnt tell whether he was very depressed or very old or both."(pg145).

He takes the oppurtunity to comment on various foreign interventations be it Russian,American or the U.N and on how difficult it is to unite what remains largely a feudal system of warlords into a coherent centralised state.
He also reflects on the part religion has played in creating Afghanistan and its society today.
The author retells some terrifying exchanges and encounters where he must have felt genuinely in fear of his life.The primitive conditions and deprivation the local population endure is also described.Again very different from luxurious holiday destinations with all the mod cons of consumer society.

An interesting book about a society and country that takes a backseat these days to the events in Iraq.The author mentions he took some photos on his travels and it would have been nice if they were included.As it is the maps inside helped me trace and follow his progress.Recommended.

Soba Bento

Similiar to the lunchbox I put on here last week this bento features soba as one of its main ingredients.Once again the bento contains various packets of sauces and garnishes to add flavour.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday Flash...More Chocolate...

Seems every week theres a new kind of chocolate bar or flavour on the shelf awaiting chocoholics like myself.This week I spotted these new additions from Meiji a local confectionery company.The two boxes differ in that one contains 86% cacao(the silver box) while its green counterpart boasts having a lower 72% cacao content.
I found the silver 86% cacao too bitter for my taste and while the 72% chocolate is still bitter at least I could finish the small bite sized portion enclosed in the foil wrapper.
Im sure theres a market for this kind of chocolate otherwise it wouldnt be on the shelves..maybe Im not sophisticated enough to appreciate how delicate and refined it is,having been bribed and reared on such sugary sickly sweet diabetes inducing delights as chocolate marshmellow fish,gum snakes,Cadbury Caramel Eggs and Whittakers Peanut Bars.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Book Review..

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. Alexander McCall Smith.218pages.Polygon.2007.

Book number eight in "The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency " series sees the focus move from the main character Precious Ramotswe and concentrate more on a couple of the minor characters.Mma Ramotswe's assistant Mma Makutsi begins to get a bit big for her boots or rather her shoes and faces the consequences while apprentice mechanic Charlie also features as he tries to gain his independence and leave his employment at the garage.
The cases the Agency investigate in this book provide the chance for some more philosphical writing and comments about relationships,society and justice.Its not heavy handed and some of the observations are amusing and humorous such as the need for people to have job titles or why men never throw away old clothes.
As with the earlier books in the series I enjoyed reading about a different life,society and country.I particularly liked the opening as Precious potters about in the morning getting breakfast ready while thinking about various things.A natural way to ease the reader back into the characters life and reacquaint oneself with life in Botswana.
While I have no problem recommending this as a good read it might be best if one started from the first book in the series to build up your knowledge and background of the characters.Precious mentions people and events such as her late father and former husband which may leave new readers unfamiliar with the earlier books a little confused.

Sumo...New Yokozuna

Following two good displays in the March Spring Tournament and winning the recent Summer Tournament with a 15-0 performance Hakuho was promoted to the rank of yokozuna late last week.
He becomes the 69th yokozuna, the top sumo rank and the first promotion since 2003.The last wrestler promoted was fellow Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu whom he beat on his way to winning the Emperors Cup and securing his promotion bid. Barely 22 years old,he becomes the third youngest yokozuna after making his debut in March 2001.
His promotion augurs well for the upcoming tournament in Nagoya.I havent seen two yokozuna since the days of Takanohana,Akebono and Masashimaru back in 2002-2003.
Asashoryu will be fighting to show his 10 win 5 loss record in the last basho was a glitch while Hakuho will be trying to show he is worthy of the top rank.
I'll also be hoping to see Baruto on the comeback trail after injury and Kaio the veteran ozeki who downed Asashoryu on the way to keeping a winning record last time out.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Friday Flash...

Fine clear weather for the first of June.I ate this bento from the corner store in the sunshine.In the left section you can find(left to right) meguro or tuna atop a finger of rice and a dash of wasabi.Nestled in the middle is tai or snapper (white flesh and kind of rubbery) and on the end ebi or shrimp.The middle section contains various sachets and garnishes to mix with the sushi rolls and soba noddles which occupy the right hand side of the bento.The blackish sachet in the centre contains a watery vingeary sauce which you drizzle over the noddles.Sitting on the noddles as a garnish are radish like sprouts.Eating the cold noddles is refreshing on such a warm day.