Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Flash...Still More KitKats

None of the three KitKat flavours Ive posted here are new to me.Its really just a case of "old wine in new bottles".The packaging is new or in the case of the blueberry and strawberry kitkats available in a bigger number.

Above you can see the blueberry kitkats and its contents.Below you can see a new designed lemon flavoured kitkat box specially in time for Valentines Day.
The Valentines box is designed so you can write a message to the recipient.I just wonder why the lemon flavour was chosen instead of one that conveys a sweeter image for this occasion.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Show me the Monet

Claude Monet..Impression,Sunrise..

Currently showing at the Nagoya City Art Museum until February 8th is an exhibition entitled Claude Monet..Impression,Sunrise.To celebrate 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and France the Nagoya City Art Museum has on display Monets painting "Impression,Sunrise" from the Musee Marmottan in Paris which gave rise to the term "Impressionism".
An art critic of the time,Louis Leroy on viewing the painting at an exhibition in 1874 branded all pictures that "focused on shimmering water and flooding light "Impressionism" to mock them".(Art for Dummies pg 152.)
The term had been intended as a negative description not only of one picture on display but a central aspect of the style in general.

In fact as the introduction notes at the gallery make clear and what I tend to forget is that Monet and other painters of this era were regarded as revolutionaries.
What now seems fairly tame and the stuff of chocolate box lids,parasols and cards was seen as forming an opposition to the conservative art world.
Artists such as Monet,Renoir,Degas,Sisley and Pissarro had to organise their own exhibitions as they were excluded from the annual ones held by the French Academy of Art.(Impressionism..Karin H. Grimme p6).

As to the exhibition itself there are 35 paintings in total on display.The ground floor has a selection of works by Monets contemporaries such as Sisley,Cezanne and Pissaro.In total there are 17 works downstairs.Pride of place is taken by Monets Impression:Sunrise, a delicate harbour scene of boats at dawn complete with an orange sun and shimmering light.The painting is accompanied with its own bored looking security guard.
On the second floor there are 18 paintings by Monet.As with the paintings downstairs with the exception of Impression:Sunrise all seem to have come from various Japanese institutions and companies.I noted that the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts,Asahi Breweries and the Bridgestone Museum of Art all had contributed some Monet works to this exhibition.
My attention was caught by a painting of Charing Cross Bridge,one of a series Monet painted while another colourful one depicting a boat at low tide on loan from the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum also stood out.
While there are only 35 paintings in total on display this lack of quantity doesnt necessairly mean a lack of quality.I hadnt seen the majority of the Monet works on display and it was interesting to see the range available within Japan.
I presume most of the works had been purchased during the so-called bubble era and wondered if any would be sold given the current economic situation.

I also wondered why all the works were under glass.Id previously seen Impression:Sunrise in Paris at the Musee Marmottan.As I recall then it wasnt under glass and one could also get closer to it.With the paintings sealed behind glass it seems to me that the paintings are "trapped" as it were.The glass seems to nullify the effect of the raised oil paint and the patterns and textures the artist produces.
The almost 3 dimensional effect Monet produces in his waterlilly paintings is all but lost behind the glare and reflection of the glass.

To sum up then,its worth a visit to see some less well known Monet works and compare them with the other Impressionist painters on display.
The exhibition runs through to Feb 8th.Admission is 1,300 yen for adults and its closed on Mondays.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Best American Short Stories 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2008
Editor..Salman Rushdie
Series Editor..Heidi Pitlor. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Meh.Disappointing.And then some.I struggled to finish all the stories in this volume selected by guest editor Salman Rushdie.
Nothing stood out.One story bore me.Steven Millhauser's 29 page diary like marathon failed to capture my interest.In the contributors notes at the back he writes of the origin.."an idle thought,of no particular interest in itself".Unfortunately the same could be said of this piece.

Rushdie notes in his introduction that many short stories today have "that flat polished sameness of tone".Unhappily there are many examples of this within this tome.What Rushdie says he "expected and perhaps feared:a widespread humorless bloodless competence" pervades these pages.

None are to my mind particularly strong or original.Kate Chases effort reminds me of Margaret Atwoods HandMaid's Tale while the characters in Allegra Goodman's "Closely Held" wouldnt seem out of place in a Douglas Coupland novel.Minus the humor and insight.

This sense of weary deja vu is further exacerbated with the inclusion of a Karen Russell story for the second year running.Quite apart from the fact there must surely be other noteworthy writers deserving of their first appearance it is another vampire story.Fangs but no thanks.Im so over vampires.Vampire overkill.Bloodless competence indeed.

Rushdie also includes contributions by a former guest editor Tobias Wolff and another by Alice Munro who also featured in last years volume.I have no objection to their being here on the basis they are well known writers.I do wonder if there were commercial considerations involved as their actual offerings seem very pedestrian and merely workperson like.

Other reviews Ive read have noted that Rushdie isnt an American,while others suggest stories about Pakistani electricians have no place in an American anthology.Both these matters are addressed adequately by Rushdie in his introduction as though he foresaw these objections.

Rushdie lists six authors(whose work didnt make the final cut)in his introduction who should feel "aggrieved".Its a pity he didnt extend his apology to this reader.
However he shouldnt have to shoulder all the blame for this lack lustre collection.Some fault must fall at the feet of the series editor Heidi Pitlor in her second year on the job.Strike two as far as Im concerned.

On an unrelated point,not only is the quality of writing dropping to my mind but so is the actual physical construction of the book.The covers are of a thinner card than last years edition.Bending and distorting easily.The pages paper quality also seems inferior and coarser.More susceptible to marks,dust and grubby fingerprints.
Definitely not a keeper.

Its all a bit Mickey Mouse really...

Two of the "schools" I worked at last week were without their regular Japanese office staff.I had to scramble about and check that the schedules were firstly available and also that they were accurate.Nothing like preparing for a lesson without knowing who is going to turn up.
Apparently its going to be a regular occurrence in at least one of these "schools" as the staff there only works part-time.Management havent figured out that the busiest day of the week probably isnt the best day to be without staff.
So not only do I get the responsibility of opening up the school,print out the schedule,I also have to check the class attendance.
Bear in mind that there are 10 minutes between classes to write up notes for a possible five students,find another five files and prepare for the next one.Time is already short without the extra task of taking the roll.
The students naturally raised their eyebrows at the lack of staff.They couldnt book a lesson at the time,pay money,arrange counselling or talk to the staff about changes in their courses.
The other thing I discovered is that in these "schools" there is no clock chime to remind you when the classes start and finish.
At one branch there are three clocks.All of course showing different times.
I choose to go by the Mickey Mouse clock which you see above.Somewhat apt given the circumstances.Even more ironic later in the day it stopped and I had to replace the battery.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Flash...More KitKats

Some recent different KitKats Ive seen on the shelves.The apple and strawberry flavours appear to be re-released in different packages.
Clockwise from the apple kitkats in the centre is the candied sweet potato flavoured or daigakumio kitkats.To the right of these is shiruko or sweet red bean soup flavoured kitkats.
Below the shiruko box is a pack of ajiwai strawberry flavour kitkats.Finally to the left of those strawberry kitkats is a box of cookies and kitkats flavour.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Toyota Shock....The 2009 Problem

Two terms recently bandied about in the local media are "Toyota shock" and "the 2009 problem".
"Toyota shock" refers to the sudden slump and reversal in profits of Toyota Motor Corp.There are predictions of a huge fall in operating profits.The group earnings forecast anticipate an operating loss of 150 billion yen in the fiscal year through March 2010.Apparently it will be the first time Toyota has reported an unconsolidated operating loss on a full year basis since fiscal 1949.

The principal reasons given are the slump in global car sales and the yens strength against the U.S dollar.
Toyota sells a third of its vehicles in the North America market which has fallen away due to the U.S financial crisis.Toyota's U.S sales nosed dived 33.9% in November while its overall global sales dropped 23.8%.

Other car makers such as Nissan,Honda and Mazda also posted falls in sales for November.The picture isnt any brighter locally as the domestic car sales market fell in November to a 39 year low.
The Impact
Apart from the obvious layoffs and cutbacks there are less apparent downstream results.
Aichi Prefecture's corporate tax revenue will be down some 20% or some 20 billion yen due to the Toyota shock.Things like new public buildings,road and river maintenance and building earthquake resistance programmes may need to be revised or reviewed or put on hold.
Advertising,expense and travel accounts get cut.Workers are laid off so rental housing becomes vacant.Restaurants,taxi drivers and real estate firms feel the impact of belt tightening and less demand for their services.

The 2009 Problem
Part time workers,contract workers,outsourced hires,dispatch workers,seasonal fixed term employees,non regular workers.There seem a myriad of names.
In 2004 government deregulation allowed the entry of dispatch workers into the manufacturing industry.Back then the contract period was limited to no more than one year.
However the contract period was extended to a maximum of three years in March 2007.Companies that took up the three year extended contracts started hiring in 2006.
Now three years later in 2009 these contracts will expire some time this year.
If the companies continue to employ these workers beyond the initial three year contract they have to convert them into regular workers or other types of outsourced hires.
Given the worsening economic climate and the "very severe" employment conditions there is a fear that a large number of these workers will lose their jobs hence the term "the 2009 problem".
To make matters worse if these non regular workers do lose their jobs they could also find themselves homeless as they are told to vacate their company owned residences by their former employers.
According to a Health,Labor and Welfare Ministry report an estimated 85,000 non regular workers will lose or will have lost their jobs by March this year.
(Sources...Daily Yomiuri,The Japan Times newspapers,Kyodo News ).

Friday, January 09, 2009

Friday Flash...Yet more food photos

A typical lower end bento thats available year round.In the top left is a black mass of pickled eggplant and is surprisngly tasty.

The photos above and below show some handmade sweets.Of the two I found the apple ones had a more appealing taste than the bitter lemons.

The final shot is of a bento available over the New Years break.At the bottom you can see shredded salmon pieces on rice.The centre contains a small portion of chicken and a crunchy shrimp together with a baby potato and a small slab of omelette by way of contrast.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Happy Moo Year

2009 is the year of the ox according to the traditional Chinese calendar.Ox are regarded as a sign of prosperity gained through hard work and fortitude.The ox is hard working and methodical.The postive attributes of an ox include being strong minded and intelligent.On the other hand an ox's faults include being intolerant,gullible and stubborn.

The shot above shows some of the nengajo or New Year greeting cards that were available this year.

New Year 2009

From the first of January and the following few days the streets round Osu Kannon are crowded with people making their first visit to the local temple to pray for a healthy and prosperous twelve months.The first days of each New Year are full of firsts for example "hatsumode" the first temple visit or "hatsuhimode" catching the first sunrise of the New Year.
There are others including as I found out earlier in the week "the first ride of the year".Around 10am last Thursday the first day of 2009 I was awoken by the deafening noise of motorcycles pulling up outside the convenience store below my apartment building.
Grabbing my camera I lumbered downstairs to see what was happening.

I struck up a conversation in my poor broken Japanese with this very personable biker.
It seems that he and friends go on a group ride together every January 1st to celebrate the new year and the convenience store was the starting point for the ride.
He seemed very proud of his Triumph motorcycle.He didnt mind posing in front of it,much to the amusement of his fellow motorcyclists who numbered round a dozen or so.

Of the dozen or so bikes parked up the majority were either British or American.I only spotted a lone Japanese motorcycle among the Triumphs,BMWs and a few Harleys.
After about half an hour waiting for stragglers to arrive the group left en masse in an orderly fashion in the direction of Nagoya Port.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Friday Flash..French Food Photos

A small selection of the fare I ate on my recent trip to Paris late November early December 2008.

There were no shortage of crepes and the number of outlets all over Paris seems to attest to their popularity.

I must have eaten onion soup at five or more different eateries during my visit.Each was different,unique in terms of its flavour,colour and consistency.Some were adorned with thick chunks of crouton like bread while others had chewy almost golf sized balls of cheese lurking in the depths of their bowls.Some had almost caramelised pieces of onion floating around.All were delicious.
Had I come in summer Im not sure I would have enjoyed the onion soup as much.Nor had the oppurtunity to enjoy thick hot chocolate drinks.One trade off for the lack of colour and flowers in the gardens was the richness and warmth of the food.Sure some of the tourists attractions lacked their summer splendour.Not all the fountains were operating when I visited the Eiffel Tower and the Jardins du Trocadero.Its a compromise Im willing to make.

The photo shows one of the massive salads available at Le Relais Gascon near the Abbesses Metro stop.Very filling and decorated with garlic sauteed fried potatoes.I passed on a starter and just ordered this salad.And glad I did as it took some effort to finish.Delicious and full of fresh raw vegetables.

This thin sweet pastry treat filled with raspberry jam is known appropriately enough as lunettes

This final shot shows a typical meat dish I ate while on my sojourn in Paris.
I choose to eat at mainly small French eateries catering to locals or tourists.I didnt sample any of the myriad other ethnic choices available such as Lebanese or Nepalese restaurants.I stayed clear of the local Japanese sushi bars with its all too familiar menu of raw fish,seaweed and rice dishes.I wanted a complete change.Something to whet my appetite and recharge my tastebuds.
Some of the places I ate at Ive noted below..

Friday Flash...Some French Restaurants I Ate At..

While on my Paris vacation late November early December last year I visited a few restaurants mainly round the Montmartre and Abbesses areas.
There are many restaurants catering to tourists surrounding Sacre Coeur and in the Place du Tertre.
Just off the Place is a restaurant called Tartempion on Rue du Mont-Cenis.It has a very reasonable set menu or formule.For 15 euros you get to choose an entree,main and dessert.Other places set menus offered only a starter and main for a similar price so it was very good value.
I'd recommend the thick hot onion soup served in a square white ceramic dish.The steak I had as a main came with a salad and loads of fries.I finished off with a big slice of apple pie.
The place was interestingly decorated with a collection of fire extinguishers and what looked like industrial sized wooden cotton bobbins.Definitely worth a visit.

The photo above shows a bistro La Maison Rose not far from Tartempion north of the Place du Tertre.The restaurant in a small pink cottagey building is on Rue de l'Abreuvoir.My notes omitted what I ate for dinner there...though I did write down it was reasonably priced which means it was under 25 euros.

Near the Abbesses Metro station I found a number of restaurants,some of which were in various guidebooks and others I just ventured into.
Chez Marie,the red building in the shot above, had some very friendly and helpful staff who made various recommendations and suggestions as I decided what to eat.
As with other restaurants I visited there seems a certain pride and reverence in the way food is presented and cooked.Theres no rush to move diners along and the courses come at a leisurely pace allowing you to catch your breath and enjoy what you are eating.
Also near the Abbesses is a brasserie called Le Relais Gascon.
Once again I had the onion soup as a starter and a meaty main dish.On a subsequent visit here I also tried one of the massive salads topped with garlic sauteed fried potatoes.More touristy than Chez Marie but I'd recommend both.
Finally one other restaurant in the Abbesses area roughly located between the two Ive already mentioned is a small vegetarian establishment called Au Grain de Folie.Its virtually in a straight line from the Abbesses Station exit on Rue la Vieuville.
If you need a break from steak,beef and poultry dishes then the salads,grains and vegetables served here will make a diverting,pleasant change.They even had organic beer on the drinks list.
Its a small crowded restaurant.Everything is cooked and prepared as you order.Very friendly fellow diners who swopped restaurant and travel tips with me over dinner.It was funny to see everyone pull out their own Lonely Planet guide books.I swear there were at least 5 different language versions on the tables.Also ironic that the same places had been noted and ticked off.

Eschewing the guidebooks one lunchtime I found myself near the foot of Montmartre and strode into No Problemo Bar/Restaurant having read the chalked menu but understanding little of it.The formule here was 15euros for an entree and plat(main course).I ordered a tomato salad for starter which came with bread and probably would be the equivalent of a main here in Japan.The main course I got was a large duck breast served with a kind of potato pie.Nicely tender,plump and well cooked the meat fell away effortlessly.Well satisfied I couldnt pass up on dessert though it wouldnt be included in the set menu price.Nevertheless the creme brulee was worth every penny.A generous size,creamy and covered with a thin toffee glaze.Together with a good cup of expresso a fitting end to a small feast.So if you are in the vicinity of Rue Andre del Satre at the bottom of Sacre Coeur this place is definitely worth a visit.

Other places worthy of mention include a winebar/restaurant Aux Negociants where I drank beaujolais with some locals as they waited for their friends to arrive for dinner.It was very friendly but I had the feeling that I was intruding on an almost family like event.Once the locals had assembled they sat as one at two or three tables and proceeded to order.Again I had no complaints about the meal and would recommend it.
Finally a local watering hole across from the Lamarck Caulaincourt Metro stop which serves good coffee and has a small but varied menu is the Cafe Le Refuge.The staff are very friendly and helpful as are the locals who prop up the bar.I'd recommend a cafe lait and a hamfilled breadstick off the chalk board menu if you are peckish.