Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Flash...The First Sign of Autumn?

Spotted this new(well it is for me)flavour at a local convenience store.Its the second flavour in the Dean and Deluca ice cream range Ive seen here.I wasnt actually aware Dean and Deluca made ice-cream for the Japanese market until a few weeks ago.At 280 yen for this size its definitely at the top end of the price range.A similiar sized mini cup Haagen Daz retails round the 263 yen mark.
As for the marron flavour its aimed at the local market as "marron" translates from French into Japanese as "chestnut".Dont ask why.I think its similiar logic that translates what I think of as a "cream puff" type pastry into "choux cream" in Japanese.
The ice-cream appears in the photo above more like vanilla than a green/tawny colour I'd expected.It also tastes very vanilla-like despite containing marron and marron paste according to the labelling on the container.Whatever,its quite pleasant and smooth with a hint of brandy coming through.
No doubt I will see more cakes and confectionery containing marron as summer fades.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review...Botchan by Natsume Soseki

Botchan.Natsume Soseki.2006.Kodansha International.172pages.

Botchan was first published in Japanese way back in 1906.It was written by Natsume Soseki who is widely regarded as the best modern(i.e post 1868)Japanese prose writer.As well as novels he also wrote essays,literary criticism pieces and composed traditional haiku and poetry.
Botchan is one of his earlier works and reflects his experiences as a secondary school teacher in Shikoku and Kyushu.
The leading character of the book Botchan is used as a vehicle by the author to poke fun at various institutions and parts of Japanese society as well as individual human foibles and failings.One doesnt have to be Japanese to identify with the urban/rural distinctions he draws such as the perceived backwardness of small towns versus the modernity of cities like Tokyo.
I enjoyed this easily readable light satire and can see why it has retained its popularity and become a standard school text book.
The translation into English by J Cohn wasnt clunky and doesnt detract or do a disservice to the author.Recommended

Goya..the vegetable,not the painter

Goya is a bitter gourd like vegetable that originally comes from Okinawa.Its becoming increasingly popular and a common sight this time of year in supermarkets and on green grocery shelves.
In Okinawa,goya chanpuru,a stir fried dish with pork and tofu is a common way of serving it.Other ways of eating it include goya tempura,goya sweet and sour and goya soaked in brown sugar.
Personally I slice it up,quickly boil it and then fry it in a little oil,soya sauce and sugar to lessen the bitterness.
Goya is rich in vitamin C and is reputed to help beat the summer heat.Products such as goya juice and goya tea can be found as thirst quenchers.
As well as being held up as one way of fighting heat its also said to stimulate the appetite and moderate blood pressure.And despite its lumpy,warty outward appearance it is said to be good for your skin as well.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Flash...Orange and Chocolate KitKats

Another KitKat flavour made a brief appearance on the shop shelves this week.Like other seasonal flavours the orange and chocolate kitkats above are of the limited edition variety.In fact when I went back to purchase another box the next day,the convenience store had already sold out.The kitkats have a kind of jaffa taste and a distinctive sweet orange smell once the box is opened.

The heat continued through the week.It seems the last month or so the temperature has hovered round the thirty degree mark which is ok if you are a cactus but somewhat trying if you need to sleep or function in any intelligent manner.Consequently Im too exhausted to do much again this weekend except nap and read on the tatami in my bedroom.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I've been lying in a bed of coals...

The sizzling weather remains this week.The heatwave of the last ten or so days may abate towards the weekend but the humidity and continual mid thirty degree temperatures are fraying my nerves and making it difficult to sleep at nights.Even escaping to the swimming pool provides little relief.The lukewarm water temperature doesnt cool and invigorate those who enter it.Rather,it left me feeling much as a lobster would.Thrashing about,red-faced and panting in a cooking pot.

My place of work,Tajimi City, is still a leading contender in the highest daily temperature stakes in Japan.The local convenience stores are doing a roaring trade in cold drinks and ice creams at the moment while parasol makers must be rubbing their hands with glee at the constant demand for their products.
The number of people suffering and dying from heatstroke has also been regularly reported in the various media.Last Friday,for example,heatstroke was apparently the cause of 11 deaths throughout Japan while the previous day at least three people died from heatstroke.The weather forecast for tomorrow Tuesday in Nagoya is for partly cloudy skies,a low temperature of 27 and a high of 36 degrees celsius.
The photo above shows a dragonfly sunbathing in a local park in Nagoya.

Book Review..Occupational Hazards

Occupational Hazards. Rory Stewart.Picador 2006.434pages.

Stewart's book is based on his year long diary that chronicles his time in Iraq helping to rebuild the infrastructure and establish a new Iraqi government prior to the hand over of power in June 2004.
He was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority as a Deputy Governor of two provinces in the Marsh Region of southern Iraq following the U.S led invasion which destroyed Saddams regime along with the huge centralised bureaucracy that had controlled Iraq for the previous 30 years or so.No small challenge.

As with his earlier book,The Places in Between,each chapter is prefaced with a relevant quote.In this book most come from Machiavelli.The author goes to some pains to detail the historical and social background of the regions he was concerned with.
Generations of tribal conflict,religious rivalry and centuries of Islamic tradition stand in the way of Western style democracy taking root in Iraq.
There had been no free elections in Iraq for 50 years,no proper census,voter registration,no agreement on electoral procedures and no voter education.

Most of the book is a day to day account of his work which amounts to meetings.He recalls meetings with locals and his superiors back in the Green Zone.
"Every day we gambled on insufficent information,trusted and suspected,persuaded reluctant bureaucrats,threatened and rewarded and charmed."page 121.

Its not all gloom and despondency.One of the lighter moments involves a released British hostage who phones home and his first words are "Did West Ham win?"p349.
There are other incidents of humor which he lets the reader recognise without labouring the point.

I found the book informative.Not only are there local groups and sectional interest groups competing with each other,there are also externally backed groups trying to fill the vaccum left by Saddam and the Baathists.Im also left with the impression that at the time there was a tension between the civil and military authorities in regard to their coordination and relationship with each other.
In his epilogue Stewart states"I can confidently assert that Iraqis are the only people with the moral authority,understanding and skills to rebuild their nation"p432

Bearing this in mind I read an article from The Chicago Tribune "A New Tune:Analysts see progress in Iraq"August 14 2007.I'll quote an extract from it "In the end the situation in Iraq remains grave.In particular,we still face huge hurdles on the political front.Iraq politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation or at least accomodation are needed.This cannot continue indefinitely."

In summary then an informative book that would appeal to anyone interested in the situation in Iraq described by someone who was involved in its day to day during a difficult period of its history.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday Flash...Kyo mo atsui wa ne?

Kyo mo atsui wa ne?(Its hot today isnt it?) was a bit of an understatement in the rural city I work at.Yesterday the temperature in Tajimi City,Gifu Prefecture hit 40.9 degrees celsius.
Tajimi is a thirty minute train ride from Nagoya,the sprawling,oft-ignored metropolis between Tokyo and Osaka.Tajimi lies in a basin,nestled between low-lying hills.In summer,due to its topography,it regularly tops the national temperature charts.
As I left work late yesterday afternoon I noticed about four or five television trucks camped round the train station with camera men and interviewers stopping locals and asking for their comments which seemed to amount to "atsui,atsui" its hot its hot.

Yesterday,along with Kumagaya City in Saitama Prefecture,Tajimi broke the previous national record of 40.8 degrees celsius set in Yamagata way back in 1933.Although it was my day off today and I sweltered in Nagoya,Tajimi hit 40.8 degrees equalling the old record.

As for the photo above...I havent seen the Dean and Deluca brand before I spotted this "super premium ice cream" tub in a convenience store in Tajimi.Their Kyoto Green Tea flavor is one of the nicest Ive tasted.Smooth and not as bitter as I'd expected having sampled other brands Im still not convinced green tea ice cream is a winner.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Obon and The Eel Days of Summer

Obon is the annual Buddhist event held to remember ones ancestors.Its celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of August so we are right in the middle of it as I blog this.
In a nutshell or more appropriately an urn, it is believed that each year during Obon ones ancestors spirits return to visit their relatives.Why they return during the hottest time of the year remains a mystery to me.
Obon is one of the three major Japanese holiday seasons,the others being New Years and Golden Week in May.
Basically its become a week long family break from work where people return to their hometowns and visit and clean their ancestors graves.

If you watch the news or read the papers its also the time where almost lemming-like, families choke the roads to major holiday destinations.Bumper to bumper traffic for 60 odd kilometres on expressways and interchanges isnt uncommon.
There is both an increase in domestic and international travel.Accomodation rates double while marine accidents such as drowning triple in numbers.
The number of heat related cases and heatstroke deaths also increases as mid August temperatures soar around the country following the end of the rainy season.
One way of fending off the heat and maintaining ones energy levels is to partake of eel which is said to fight off summer lethargy.Ive put an example of an eel bento or lunchbox above which is very popular at this time of year.

Nova...Improvement Plan

Last week it was reported that Nova,the English language school operator had submitted a report to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government regarding measures to improve its business following the Economy,Trade and Industry Ministry suspension orders in June.
According to officals,Nova had vowed to increase the number of teachers by 686 by October from 4,415 as of July.
It will be interesting to see if they reach this number for a number of reasons.
Firstly,given the current exchange rate the salary isnt as financially attractive as it was and less of a lure for potential job candidates.
Secondly,I wonder if the current METI action has tarnished Nova's reputation and made recruitment more difficult.
Thirdly,I wonder if the fact that the Japanese staff have had their summer bonus postponed till October and several "computer glitches" will put off prospective employees.
Finally,I also wonder if the 686 teachers/instructors will actually increase the current number of instructors available or merely be replacements for those who,for a variety of reasons,have left.
Hopefully as reported the Metro Government officals will closely monitor the situation.

On a lighter note a friend came across the T-shirt below in a second hand clothes shop.
I should hasten to add that it has nothing to do with the above mentioned company.

However while Im not really involved in Out Patient Rehabilitation it does at times feel so.In fact I feel more like a practitioner of "Pallative English" dealing with cases that have very little to do with teaching the English language more like a grief/marriage /human relationship/vocational guidance counsellor rolled into one...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday Flash..More Cosplay Summit 2007 Photos

I had planned to do many things today.However,by mid morning the mercury had risen to around 30 peaking at 37 degrees celsius so only I ended up dragging myself to the local swimming pool and after that lying on the tatami in my apartment trying to avoid heat stroke and dehydration.

So I took the easy option and posted some more photos from last weeks cosplay summit parade in Osu Kannon.Special thanks to Peter who kindly supplied the three shots below.

As I noted on Monday there was a sizable overseas contingent of cosplayers also competing.

The man with the white wig next to the female competitor in the green mini skirt had gone to some lengths to reproduce his character as his costume and waist coat were highly detailed and accessorised.

The final shot shows three more masked cosplay characters who were in the parade.It must have been hot under those masks as the temperature hovered round the high 20 degree celsius mark and was very humid.Later in the day a short,violent electrical storm brought some temporary relief from the heat of the early afternoon.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Pre-Event Parade World Cosplay Summit 2007

As part of the Osu Kannon Summer Festival on Saturday there was a street parade for competitors in the World Cosplay Summit.This was a pre event for the annual World Cosplay Summit which would be followed by a competition event on Sunday in Sakae.
The parade was a very colorful event attracting both male amd female cosplayers.According to reports there were competitors from 12 countries including Brazil,Denmark and Germany vying for the competition crown.
The hour long march started off near the subway exit and wound round Osu finishing back at the stage near the temple.
The cosplayers provided a strange contrast to the more traditional taiko drum groups who were performing before them.

The word 'cosplay',is for you grammar gurus,a portmanteau word,i.e you join the start of one word to the end of another.For example,breakfast and lunch become "brunch".
In this instance cosplay comes from linking the words costume and roleplay.
Cosplayers,both male and female,wear their handmade creations based on characters from anime,manga,video games,movies,tv show characters and tokusatsu-Japanese superheroes such as Ultraman.

Simply stated cosplay is a hobby where fans dress up as their favourite animation character.Akihabara,a district in Tokyo, is usually cited as being the base for cosplayers in Japan with many shops and cafes catering to both cosplayers and their fans.In Nagoya one can see cosplayers in Sakae and Osu wearing their distinctive outfits.Also in Osu recently a Maids Cafe opened where the waitresses wear traditional maids uniforms.These cafes cater both for cosplayers as a venue to meet and also "otaku" or fans.

The nearest translation of otaku equates to nerd,geek or one source even suggested the British term 'anorak'.So roughly its someone with an obsessive interest in something.
There were plenty of otaku in evidence on Saturday ranging from scrawny adolescent boys posing,giggling with their costumed idols or older gentlemen packing expensive cameras and lenses jostling with each other to get a shot.My friend and I joined in the scrum to get the best photos and position.
At the time it seemed fun and harmless enough though theres certainly a Lolita, voyeuristic,exhibitionist aspect.Middle aged men snapping shots of girls in Sailor Moon costumes.Teenage girls dressed up in cat like outfits complete with tails.Or maybe I just imagined it.

One older gentleman approached me and my friend while we were observing the start of the parade and proudly proclaimed he was an otaku.He told us he'd come from Tokyo,actually a suburb next to Akihabara especially for the Cosplay Summit.He showed us the photos of some Maid Cafe workers he'd taken in a studio and was looking forward to the parade.Then he was off.He'd spotted a gaggle of Maids and was asking for a photo.

Osu Kannon Summer Festival 2007

Osu Kannon had its summer festival over the weekend.A stage was put up in the open area near the temple and many taiko drum groups such as that pictured above competed.It must have been hot wearing the traditional dress and toiling away in the heat and humidity.
On Saturday and Sunday there was also a short obligatory fireworks display which is part and parcel of most summer festivals.
It was a very colorful affair with lots of bright yukatas being worn.

Asashoryu Suspended

Sumo wrestler Yokozuna Asashoryu was suspended by the Japan Sumo Association last week.This is the first time a yokozuna has been suspended or recieved a salary cut.
The punishment was imposed following Asashoryu's non attendance at a regional sumo tour of Tohoku and Hokkaido.The reason given for his absence was an injury to an elbow or a stress fracture to his back which either required surgery or rehabilitation,depending on which reports you read.

However he was seen later back home on Monoglian TV playing soccer in a charity event.Regional tour officals have criticised him for not participating in the tour.

An emergency meeting was held by the JSA following Asas return and the punishment of suspension from the next two grand sumo tournaments in September and November and a 30% salary cut was imposed.
Last night on TV Asa was reported as suffering from lack of sleep and depression according to a pyschiatrist who saw him following the JSAs ruling.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Friday Flash..Typhoon Number 5

Typhoon Number 5 or "usagi"('rabbit' in English) is making its way through Japan.It made landfall in Kyushu before heading north over the Sea of Japan and is likely to make its second landfall up in Hokkaido some time tomorrow Saturday.Meanwhile in Nagoya its just brought two really hot humid days and strong winds.The forecast rain didnt really eventuate but would have been welcome to cool at least temporarily the area.
The apparently unrelated photo above shows the Nova Usagi or rabbit the once ubiquitious symbol of Nova Corporation,one of the big four English language schools in Japan.
Since the METI sanctions and the refund scandal however the usagi can no longer be seen on TV screens or on public transport such as trains and subway carriages.
Due to a "computer glitch" Japanese staff at Nova had their past months pay delayed by 4-5 days while they have also been told that their summer bonus will now be paid in October in part due to the amount of student refunds being paid out.Unconfirmed reports and media speculation put the total amount of refund repayments at 5 billion yen a month since the METI sanctions....