Saturday, January 30, 2010

History in a Cup

Evolution of the Coffee Mug

How Did People Ever Make It

I can't believe my parents' generation used to drink coffee out of these tiny little cups. How on Earth did they ever survive? My father introduced me to coffee and the Ink Spots' classic rendition of the coffee-themed diddly featured below when I was just a tyke and they're both still favorites of mine. If either are favorites of yours, why not take some time to enjoy both, a cup of joe and some Java Jive.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Diet Secret of the Orient

Photo of shirataki noodles, etc. by Naotake Murayama via Wikipedia

I recently read an article about a Japanese food that is quickly making inroads into the bellies of dieters across America. At zero calories a serving, is there any wonder why? Made from the root of the konjak, or konnyaku plant, shirataki noodles have long been a familiar food in Japan. In America these "miracle noodles," which happens to be the name of one US company that markets them (available here on Shirataki Noodles), are being billed as a low calorie replacement to spaghetti. If you haven't tried them but are thinking about it, get that thought out of your head. I've eaten spaghetti and believe me shirataki is no spaghetti.

That's not to say these so-called noodles aren't good. They're plenty good and, what's more, maybe good for you. I'm certain they have a flavor, I just haven't been able to exactly find it yet. They have a firm gelatinous texture that is slightly reminiscent of, well rubber. Don't stop reading. They're not all that bad. Sautéed with a little sesame seed oil (there go the low calories), some garlic, maybe a little pork and just a dash of soy (or better yet fish, preferabaly bonito, stock-flavored soy) and  you've got a cookin' meal. They also go terrific with tonjiru, a robust pork-based miso soup, and a host of other Japanese culinary delights.

If you are looking for a replacement to a high calorie food that will deceive your taste buds, shirataki may or may not be up to the task.  My family eats a lot of white rice and I've found at least one way to cut the calories without cutting out any of the flavor. Just chop up some shirataki noodles to the same size of the grains of rice (it's not as difficult as it sounds) and substitute up to a third or more of the rice you need for your recipe with the grain-sized shirataki. I've only tried it with steamed white rice but I'm sure it would work with a bevy of rice dishes from fried rice, to paella, rice gratin, and more.

It's sure not spaghetti, so if you're still thinking about having it for dinner, just get that out of your head. In Japan shirataki is also known as ito konnyaku. "Ito" means string while "konnyaku," meaning konjak (the plant from which the food is made), has over the years been most often translated as "devils' tongue jelly." If you're still thinking about having it for dinner try to get that out of your head too.

Photo of Konnyaku by Gleam via Wikipedia

Oh and another thing I read: "17 children and elderly people have choked to death on konnyaku jelly since 1995."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Seat for Sore Eyes

Craneview Ward, Yokohama - When looking for a place to rest my weary eyes, I usually need look no further than my local bus stop. While bus stops like these, with broken down chairs often sporting hand-painted advertisements, are a common sight, I find them uncommonly interesting. Often the dilapidated furniture is juxtaposed with a shiny new marble faced building in another seeming disconnect in this land of seeming incongruities. Sometimes the buildings are just as well worn as the seats they face.

What kind hands have laid these resting posts in their place? Only the shadows of the night know for sure. It has been suggested by at least one cynical observer that the kindness of these strangers is all a clever ruse to avoid the bulk garbage fee that would normally be charged for disposing of an unwanted chair. I don't believe it. Maybe that's because I always see the chair as half built rather than half broken, in "a state of transition" just like the bus stop itself. 

I think this guy was ignoring me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Food for Thought

Now discuss:

Living on Top of a Cloud

This is Yokohama's Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan. Staying at the hotel that tops this famous landmark tops the list of thousands upon thousands of visitors who tour the Yokohama Bay area each year.
Although we live only about a 15-minute train ride away from this popular destination, my family and I vacation here each summer, spending one or two days holed up in a local bayside hotel. My family always wants to stay atop Landmark Tower but the rooms (as well as the rates) are just a little too sky-high for me. Besides you could never get this view from above the clouds, you have to be really well grounded to get the big picture.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cleaning Up the Area

Tsurumi, Yokohama - They used to call places like this toruko buro, or Turkish  baths. Then some time during the 1980's understandably offended Turks made a big stink about it. After a nationwide contest in Japan to find a better name for these establishments, they were soon rechristened sopurandoor Soaplands. They are what people in the U.S. might euphemistically call "massage parlors." The area adjacent to my local train station used to be dotted with these places but in recent years, due to stiffer regulations, they have been losing ground to pachinko and slot machine parlors. Surprisingly, or not, newly built houses located nearby this garish edifice sell for a pretty penny. Most of the soaplands may be gone but somebody is still cleaning up.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lie Down

There is a trick to staying young and I know it (Pssst! It's called lying). The real trick is knowing when and how to use the trick. The "when" is anytime after 40. The "how" is a little more subtle and requires a slight bit of cunning. Here's how I do it. Always lie up, never lie down. That's it. That's all there is to it really. Try it! You'll start to feel younger immediately, I'm sure of it. No one will ever suspect you're lying because no one ever lies up, they always lie down.

Now the Japanese have a clever trick of their own for finding out exactly how old you are without really prying. They simply ask what (Chinese) zodiac symbol, or animal,  you were born under. Japanese culture shares the same twelve year cycle zodiac so everybody is familiar with it and there is no need to track down a placemat from a cheap Chinese restuarant like I do to find out what year you were born in, everybody just knows (without even using a calculator). I was born in 1962, the Year of the Tiger (according to my placemat), which makes me.... (you do the math). When people ask what year in the zodiac cycle I was born, I always tell them the truth and say, the Year of the Tiger but then quickly follow up by telling them I'm 59 years old. That's one cycle ahead or twelve years older than I really am.

Then comes the beautiful part of this prevarication. Their eyes light up in total surprise and they say something like, "I can't believe it you look so young for your age!"  Wow, who wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of that compliment? Well actually I know some 14 and 15-year-olds who wouldn't like to hear it.

Now that you know the "when" and "how," there are some pitfalls to watch out for. Here's a word of precaution: the trick can backfire. Sometimes I'll "lie up" 12 years, tell people I'm 59, sit back and wait for the compliments to start rolling in, only to hear them say something like, "I can't believe it. You don't look a day over 50." WHAAAT! That's way older than I really am. It's terribly shocking at first but that's what they have hair dye for. A few dabs in the right places should prevent backfiring in most instances.

Top photo from

Hello Kitty Animal Print Mini Plush - Orange Tiger Stripes (4" Figure)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Invasive Species

Tsurumi, Yokohama - This pond near my home is chock full of American crawdads, an invasive species. I don't know what kind of havoc they have wreaked on the local ecosystem but they provide the local residents, kids, adults, entire families, with hours and hours of wholesome recreation as they fish the little critters to their hearts' content. It's all great fun and nobody gets hurt in the process. Surprisingly (I mean this is Japan) nobody around here has thought of eating them, so it's all basically catch-and-release or catch and keep in a tank as a pet (next to the pet beetle tank perhaps). Whenever I pass by the pond, I like to tell everyone, "You're welcome" and point out the fact that the crawdads are American, just like me, an invasive species.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In My View

Snow falling on Sojiji Temple

Word for the Wise

I'm a big fan of the Merriam Webster's web site (I'm also thinking about joining the Society for the Protection of the Apostrophe but it's kind of a big commitment). They have a video program called, "Ask the Editor," that appears near the top right corner of their web page. I can't get enough of it, but they really need to do something about the lighting. They need to brighten it up just a bit, take the editors out of the shadows and put them in the spotlight. That is with the exception of the "baldish" guy, they need to tone down the lighting on him just a tad. The glare factor is just too distracting.  One recent segment of "Ask the Editor" with Kory Stamper explores the origins and meaning of the word "defenestration." Apparently it tops lots of people's favorite word list. If you're unsure of the precise meaning of the word check out the video at Merriam-Webster's "Ask the Editor" or look it up online. If you still don't get the picture, take a look at the Defenestration of San Francisco on the designboom web site. They say a picture is worth a thousand words (but don't tell Merriam-Webster).


Temple Valley - Say the word "thief" and this is the image that is conjured up in the minds of most Japanese. Unlike the bandits of the American Wild West who concealed three quarters of their face behind a bandana, the furoshiki traditionally worn by Japanese robbers seems a bit more revealing.

Recently there has been a spate of robberies in my neighborhood. Nine just yesterday. A police report provides an account of a witness seeing a foreigner who rang said witness' bell  and then wiped it clean of fingerprints before returning to his car for a quick getaway. Now everyone is on the lookout for anyone who fits the description!

In actuality what the witness saw was perhaps at worst nothing more than "a ring and run." While admittedly that can be generally upsetting, no real serious wrongdoing was committed. The real crime may be that as a general rule, crime in Japan is routinely blamed on foreigners (a catchall word that here can include actual foreign nationals and ethnic minorities born in Japan) who make up a miniscule percentage of the general population (despite volumes of facts and figures which logically suggest otherwise). The current governor of Tokyo is infamous for committing this "crime."

The section of the city where I live is home to a large Latin American population, for the most part the Nikkei descendants of Japanese who emigrated from mostly Okinawa to various countries throughout South America (well before the start of WWII) and have now come full circle, back to Japan to begin new lives. The reception they have been given over the years has been mixed. While welcomed as a source of cheaper manual labor during times of plenty, when times get tough, they are the first to get their walking papers, treated literally as personae non grata (unwelcome persons).

It may be interesting to note that the Latin word persona, meaning "mask," was also used by the ancient Romans to refer to someone with full Roman citizenship. If need be, a Roman could have proved his citizenship by producing the death masks of his ancestors. In Japan the lineage of the Latin American Nikkei community has been largely masked so they will now be seen as foreigners. While people everywhere tend to make generalizations and discriminate against those they think of as outsiders, it's best to remember that at the (Latin) root of it, behind every mask lies a persona, a person, and they're basically the same wherever and no two are exactly alike.

Read more about masks in Japan.


The gang of robbers has been nabbed, caught in the act, and they were all, every man jack of them, foreigners. They're a melting pot of criminality. Hailing from more than five different countries across the globe, they could be dubbed the "UN Gang." So never mind about what I wrote above.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cross Section

In my neighborhood Monday is the day everyone puts out their scrap metal and aluminum cans (of which there seem to be a disproportionately high amount of empty beer cans in relation to the recent census population figures) for pick-up. For the men who live in makeshift tents along the local river and elsewhere it's a treasure trove. All day long they ply the streets on bicycles upon which they balance mountainous loads of flattened cans to sell at the local scrap metal yard. Among the host of adjectives people use to describe the sight, the one that falls off my lips first is, "amazing." Usually one person will stake a claim to a garbage collection spot and proceed to flatten all the cans they find with their hands, pressing the aluminum with their thumbs until it's as thin as a dime. The cans are then packed into bags of all sizes and varieties that are precariously placed atop a bicycle that they carefully maneuver along side people, buses, trucks and scooters all vying for individual space as they race off to their separate destinations. It doesn't seem to be an easy task.

For some reason the City of Yokohama passed an ordinance against collecting cans, so technically this is an illicit activity. Quite a few people view it with the same kind of disdain that many folks in America view panhandling, even though it clearly falls into the category of labor. Come to think of it, I've never really seen panhandling in Japan. It's not at all common and I'm not sure why. Actually there was one time when I was approached by a fellow American in the Yokohama train station who was essentially begging for money. I remember him distinctly because of the snake he had tattooed on his neck that pulsated as he related his tale of woe. He explained how he had lost all his money (which because of the nature of the tattoo I imagined was in some den of iniquity) and that he was living at an all-night Internet cafe until his mother arrived from Seattle in the next couple of days with money to rescue him. I didn't even know people with snake tattoos had mothers, but that just goes to show you how limited my view of the world is. Generally I don't trust anyone, and even though this guy's story had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese and smelled as fishy as a mackerel, I was so mesmerized by the snake on his neck that I handed over all the money I had in my pockets (which was only about 500 yen or roughly five dollars), apologized for the meager amount, and slithered away as fast as I could. I think about that guy from time to time and hope that he was really just trying to hustle me and not an innocent lost abroad (although memory flashes of the tattoo usually lessen my doubts).

I don't know how much it would be possible for a panhandler to collect from the hordes of commuters passing through a major transportation hub like Yokohama train station but I heard that as of about a year and a half ago one thousand cans would net a can man about 200 yen (roughly two dollars). That was before the bottom dropped out of the automobile industry. Most of the recycled aluminum in Japan gets bought up by automakers both in Japan and abroad (the US in particular). When the economic tidal wave hit the auto industry, the ripple effect really walloped the can collectors who witnessed the price for aluminum  drop by more than half. When hard times hit, nobody gets knocked on their cans harder than people like this.

To learn more read:

Auto Industry Gloom Crushing Japan's Poor Recyclers by Toshi Maeda from Reuters

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Life Under the Line

Tsurumi (Craneview), Yokohama - Living in houses nestled beneath the elevated railway, the residents of this street have much more than a roof over their heads.

I wonder if they ever moved to a house without a train rolling overhead, would they be able to sleep without the clickity clack "lullaby" of the passing rail cars. 

Monday, January 11, 2010

Breaking News!

Mixed Juice Flavored Kit Kat Bar (only in Japan)

Tasting Notes
Appearance: Glow-in-the-dark Velveeta cheese (if there were such a thing); Nose: Fruity bouquet; Palate: Carrot juice and cream sandwich cookies; Finish: Orthodontic grade tooth paste

While America and England (the birthplace of the Kit Kat) offer a paltry 4 or 5 varieties of the Kit Kat bar, Nestle's Japan boasts a range of Kit Kats that fuses the entire global dietary spectrum. I have vowed to try them all on an epicurean journey that has taken me to the very bowels of the Japanese confectionery industry. Come along for the ride as I cruise the platforms of subway stations across the land in search of vending machines offering up the most exotic delights for anyone willing to pay the price.

To find out more about Kit Kat bars in Japan try:
18 Kit-Kat Flavors You've (Probably) Never Tried (from Food Network Humor)
Japan Snaps Up "Lucky" Kit Kats (on the BBC)

Tasting Notes Archive

Ginger Ale-flavored Kit Kat bar

Cross Section

Cross Section is a new photographic series that takes an up-close look at life in Yokohama, Japan's Tsurumi ward. Focusing the camera lens on various crosswalks throughout Tsurumi ward, the Ride of My Life photographic team hopes to capture a representational cross section of life in Japan.

Today is seijin no hi, or Coming of Age Day, in Japan. Young men and women who become 20 years old this year celebrate the day by dressing in Kimonos (mostly the young women), visiting shrines, etc. Local city offices throughout the country also hold special ceremonies to mark the occasion. The City of Yokohama holds a big ceremony for those officially reaching adulthood this year at the Yokohama Arena, a sprawling sports and performing arts complex. In recent years some of the ceremonies have been marred by outbursts from drunken celebrants representing the rougher side of a society that is often viewed as typically quiet and orderly.

While out walking today I spied a trio of newly minted adults. They were all dressed in traditional Japanese silk kimonos but had  kind of a rough edge to them. One of the young men was covered in bling and sported a pink men's kimono, or hakama. The other two were clad in what seemed more traditional-colored attire with the lad in a black hakama and the young woman, a bleached blonde, decked out in a lavish, floral patterned kimono. All three had cigarettes dangling from their lips and were making sort of a minor spectacle of themselves as they took turns posing for pictures that they snapped with their cell phones. It was a Pulitzer Prize winning scene, a real slice of modern day life in Japan, that I wanted to capture with my camera. In the end I was afraid that they would notice me and then chase after me (in their wooden flip flops) and then who knows what. So I decided to play it safe and took this picture of the novice priests/monks from Sojiji Temple on their regular jaunt through town begging for alms.

About the photos: The photo team took these photos with its relatively new-to-it Fuji Finepix S602Zoom camera it got from its Uncles a couple of years ago. If the team could have figured out how to use the zoom function I believe that it could have taken the Pulitzer Prize winning photo mentioned above from a safe disatance.  
Look forward to exciting new developments from the newly equipped photo team!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Danger Lurks in the Year of the Tiger

Yokohama - Sometime during the New Year's holidays (which are of indeterminate length as far as I can tell), usually around the fourth, traditional shishimai (lion dance) performers call on each house in my neighborhood. If you'd like the dancers to perform inside or in front of your home, the suggested donation is one thousand yen, roughly ten dollars. I find this custom extremely interesting and never miss it, but to save on the expense I traditionally view it at my mother-in-law's house.

They say if you let the lion bite your head, you will become smarter than ever. As a stranger in a strange land I find it best to be always on my guard. There are those who would, for personal gain, spite, or other nefarious reasons go out of their way to take advantage of the naivete of someone like myself. So last year when someone (I think my nephew) suggested I let the lion bite my head, I smelled a whiff of deception in the air and declined the offer. I may be an "innocent" foreigner but I wasn't born yesterday.

This year's dance, which lasted less than 5 minutes, was just as fresh and exciting to me as the first time I ever laid eyes on it. I really appreciated it. I hope to see it again next year but that kind of tradition I've since learned doesn't come cheap. 

The neighborhood association who sponsors the whole thing lays out about two hundred thousand yen, or about two thousand dollars, to hire the dancers. A local real estate magnate covers about a quarter of the cost via the annual donation he forks over his doorstep. 

The said real estate agent is, coincidentally or not, the descendant of the former feudal lord who used to rule over the area. The family still owns most of the land in the vicinity and collects a handsome sum in land rent from local householders. While land reform swept the countryside after 1945 it never made it to the big cities for various reasons (none of them good). Other than the former nobility there are only a couple of other big time spenders who altogether usually donate about a third of the total bill, the balance has to come from the small time donors at one thousand yen a pop.

Not everybody welcomes the lion. It's mostly households with small children who, if they can afford it and are at all interested in that sort of traditional pageantry, who pay to see the lion dance. I think this year was kind of tough on the neighborhood association. New Year's fell on a Friday this year, which meant a short holiday for most people. Most places were open for business on Monday, which meant fewer people were home and in a festive mood. It's best when New Year's falls on a Tuesday than more people are likely to get the whole week off (that's 9 solid days of drinking, resting, eating, oh! and visiting temples and shrines!!).

Lions and Tigers Oh My!

This year I drummed in the New Year at a tiny local shrine with a Japanese drumming group I belong to, Myoujin Daiko (the God of Light Drums or Drummers, I'm not so sure which). When we started drumming (outdoors in the frigid cold and dark of night) at about 11 pm, people just started to trickle into the shrine. By the time we were finished with our gig at 2 am there was a line of people waiting to pray at the shrine that stretched about three New York City blocks long.

This year is the year of the tiger and everyone in the group had decided weeks earlier that we would all dress in tiger costumes for the big show. I thought that was a great idea since as the only foreigner in the group I always kind of stick out and this way I would blend in with all the other tigers.

I was the only one who came dressed as a tiger!

I should have let that lion bite my head when I had the chance.