Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Garlic and Chili Peppers

Chicken Calbi
You cannot live in Japan for as long as I have and not love Japanese food. However, you cannot live in Japan for as long as I have and not be just a little sick of Japanese food. As delicious as it is, sometimes Japanese cuisine is just a little too refined, and a little too under-spiced. (Wasabi aside)

Traveling to Korea was more than just a chance to see some new sights. It was a chance to eat my way through some of the best food on the planet. I must admit, this took me by surprise. I have always enjoyed such stalwarts as bibinba and Korean BBQ, but the huge variety and tons of amazing flavors rather blindsided me.

Like most in most Asian countries, eating in Korea is about more than just sustenance. Eating out is a chance to excite your taste buds while you enjoy the company of your friends and family. The first part is covered with liberal application of chili paste and garlic in most meals. Some of the worst (best?) garlic breath of my life was on Jeju island, and not Italy as one might expect. After the more subtle flavors that predominate in Japan, I was pretty excited at the thrice daily chance to sear a few layers off of my tongue.

As mentioned, eating is very communal in Korea. Rather than pick a dish and order it for yourself, most restaurants will serve up a huge main dish, with five endlessly refillable side dishes to share. These side dishes were quite interesting. Usually composed of a variety of kimchee or two, with other various veggies, pickles and what have you. They were often mysterious, but always delicious. Top the meal off with few bottles of cheap beer and/ or soju and by the end everybody feels great.

I was happy enough to come back to okonomiyaki, sushi, shabu shabu and tonkatsu, but Korean cuisine will always hold a special spot in my pantheon of food.

Korean BBQ, one of the best things. Ever.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lunar Eclipse

Last night saw the last total lunar eclipse for a couple of years. It seems every time one of these rolls around I am either far from the optimal viewing area, or the sky is totally covered with clouds. Luckily this past weekend saw Japan in an excellent place to view the eclipse and the night was as clear a winter night as you could ever ask for.

Tess and I were walking back to my house and noticed a bite slowly being taken out of the gorgeous full moon. It was almost unnerving, watching the darkness spread across the face of the moon. It was hard to not stare at it as we walked.

Once we got home, I quickly swapped out lenses on my camera and grabbed my tripod for a little astronomical photography. I must admit, I am pretty happy with the results. My setup for this sort of thing is far from professional, but I got some good shots. It was exciting to watch the moon turn a blood red, and to record it. Though the clear December air was very chilly, it was a good thing I had the fixings for a good nabe dinner once the eclipse had finished.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Adventures Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

The Adventures of Tintin, based on the classic comics by Herge, released last week here in Japan. I grew up surrounded by the colorful characters and interesting situations Tintin finds himself embroiled in, and was eagerly looking forward to the film version. As is often the case, I was worried about how it would translate from page to screen. Though certainly the talent behind the all digital camera has a certain pedigree. Steven Speilberg knows adventure and action set pieces, and producer Peter Jackson well knows how to lovingly adapt a well known work for a new medium. Steven Moffat, one of the screenwriters, is currently running the show for both Doctor Who and Sherlock for the BBC, and has shown a great grasp of both fun and adventure on those programs.

The film is an amalgam of two of the comic adventures, The Secret of the Unicorn and The Crab with the Golden Claws. This necessitated quite a bit of structural change to fit the two together, but the result was quite enjoyable. The basics that make Tintin great survived intact. The interplay between Tintin and the crusty Captain Haddock, the slapstick of the Thompson twins, and the heroism and frequent barking of Snowy the dog are all present and accounted for. As well there are plenty of winks and nods from the Tintin Canon that have made their way into the film.

In short, I had a blast. Tintin is a true comic book film. Filled with adventure, humor, and that sense of hightened reality that comes from the best adventure fiction, be it Indiana Jones or The Three Musketeers. I find myself hoping that Tintin does quite well this holiday season, so that we may see another installment a few years down the line!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Hanging over the hustle and bustle of Seoul is the nearby border with North Korea. It can be hard to believe that a brutal dictatorship exists so close to a vibrant modern state. We couldn't come all the way to South Korea without a trip to the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone  that separates North from South.

As we got closer to the border fences, pillboxes and watch towers begin to appear. This bridge is one of the only links between the two states, a recently built railway that was hoped to bring the sundered halves closer together.

The first real stop on the tour was at a museum that looked at the history of the Korean war, and the cross border tensions since then. It didn't have the more recent spats listed, but it gave a good overview of things. There was also a video presentation that stressed the nature reserve aspect of the DMZ over the soldiers, pillboxes and landmines aspect. It was fine, but it did seem a bit Pollyanna considering the history and the tensions.

After the museum we got to visit Infiltration Tunnel #3. This is the third of four tunnels that have been found piercing the border. The North Koreans claim it is a coal mine, and planted coal dust to back up their claim. However, the way the tunnel is fashioned and the way it slopes (up towards South Korea) show the lie. It was built for use in a surprise attack. It is estimated that there are many more tunnels that have not been found. Sadly for me, photography was not permitted within the tunnel. In this way, the tour was very highly regulated. Passports were required, and photography was strictly limited. If you were seen taking photographs in a forbidden area, guards would accost you and make you delete the file.

Then it was time to journey to an overlook where we could peer into North Korea itself. We were there on a very clear day, and got excellent views of the hills surrounding a North Korean city whose name escapes me. We also got to view what were once the tallest and second tallest flag poles in the world. Each side kept building their flagpole taller, until South Korea stopped bothering. Here again, photography was only allowed to a certain point. From the edge you could see South Korean military fortifications, and they wanted to ensure no agents could photograph the troop dispositions. 

Our last stop was Dorason station. It is a brand new train station that has never been used. It was built to service the same train line the bridge was built for, but relations between North and South soured, and regular service never began. It was eery walking around a shiny but empty train station. 
While we did not get to see the Joint Security Area and the actual border line on this tour, we did get an excellent glimpse of the fractured recent history of the Korean peninsula. It was a fascinating day, and a sobering one as well. A true peace treaty was never signed, and as we have seen in the news there are still flashes and flare ups. While we may hope a resurgent Korean War will never happen, our trip to the DMZ reminded us that it is certainly possible. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Alloy of Law

I interrupt the (ir)regularly scheduled Korea trip posts for a quick diversion.

I have been a big fan of fantasy author Brandon Sanderson's work since I read his Mistborn Trilogy some years back. The story was conceived as a way of turning most of the Tolkienesque tropes of fantasy on their head. In this setting, the grand quest to rid the world of evil failed, saddling the known world with a thousand years of dark lord dictatorship. The books were fun, interesting and fresh, and I really enjoyed the world Sanderson created. While the ending wrapped up the trilogy quite nicely, there is always room for more stories. Hence, The Alloy of Law.

This newest book in the series is a stand alone tale set three hundred years after the end of the trilogy. Unlike most fantasy worlds, where things stay generally medieval for centuries, here is a much more dynamic world. Railroads are proliferating, and a general wild west/ steampunk vibe has been very successfully overlaid on the rules and history of the series. The Alloy of Law was written as a bit of a break between other more epic fantasy novels and is a much shorter, fluffier book than we might be used to in the genre, and even from this author. There are no world spanning conflicts, no epic armies clashing. Rather there is a solid central mystery complimented by fun characters, interesting dialogue and a chance to revisit a very interesting setting. As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Alloy of Law, and I am very much looking forward to more stories in the Mistborn universe.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The largest and grandest of Seoul's several ancient palaces is Gyeongbokgung. Sadly though, much of the Palace is less ancient than you might think. Much of the palace was destroyed by the Japanese colonial efforts prior to the Second World War. Quite a bit has been restored and rebuilt though, and the whole thing is very impressive. 

We were lucky enough to arrive right at the height of a ceremonial changing of the guard. What most interested me was the military bands horns, they sounded a lot like bagpipes without the bags! The colorful flags and costumes where perfect for setting the mood as we got ready to explore the palace.

This particular building was one of the few left standing, and was built as a party pavilion. I can see the appeal, with the lake side location and gorgeous mountain views. Sadly, I don't think it is being rented out anymore. 

What was being rented (for free) were costumes. Wear a guard costume, and experience Korean Culture. Or just horse around and pretend to be in a fighting game. We had a lot of fun in our allotted time, and a great many very goofy photographs were taken. 
The general architecture and layout of the palace was very interesting, East Asian for sure, but still unique. The basic layout reminded me of a smaller scale Forbidden City, though far less elaborate in color scheme than China tends to be. In fact, it was like much of Korea seemed, a bit of a halfway point between Japan and China. Which, geographically at least, it certainly is. Poor Korea was caught between those two quite often throughout the years. 

The grounds of the palace also contained a museum of Korean history and culture that was very well done. I learned a lot about a country that I must admit I have often overlooked.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where did he go?

     Things have been a little quiet on the blog front lately, but for very good reasons. In late September I went back to America for two weeks, for both a visit home and to attend my mother's art opening. I have a strong mischevious streak, and didn't actually tell my parents I was coming home. Luckily their shock was quickly overcome with joy at seeing their wayward first-born show up on the doorstep. I hadn't been back since I left for Japan in March of last year, so it had been a while since we had seen each other in a non-skype capacity.

     The opening itself was amazing, with beautiful art in every corner and plenty of people milling about singing my mom's praises. She had turned out some fantastic work in the past year and a half, and it was a pleasure to experience all these new paintings first hand.

     I also had the chance to catch up with my Aunt, who flew in from Hawaii, and my cousin from Seattle that I hadn't seen in ages. We had a bit of a mini family reunion, which was very nice. Topping all that off with plenty of non-Japanese food and I had a great two weeks.

     Some photos will follow, but I am still a bit backed up processing Korea photos, and I have some from a visit to Ishikawa as well as festival photos from Maebashi to deal with too. I have been pretty busy lately, which gives plenty of blog material, but not much time to actually write everything up!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Is Your Seoul Saved?

     After plenty of relaxing on Jeju Island, it was time to visit the big city. Once we arrived at our rather swanky hotel and met up with Travis, the fourth and final member of our team, we headed into the thick of things on an important mission: buying pants. Marcos is a very connected young man, and one of his old friends from college is now an event planner in Seoul. She managed to get us on the list for a pretty fancy club, but they had a dresscode. No Shorts Allowed. It being summer in East Asia, I had not bothered to bring pants and so had to venture downtown to pick up a pair.

     While en-route we stopped off at a street vendor for a rather unique snack, a corn-dog covered in french fries and fried. As far as heart stopping bits of mutated Americana go, it was excellent. For our shopping pleasure we went to a huge mall of individual clothing stalls that were packed with cheap duds that could be had even cheaper if you felt like a bit of bargaining.

Dinner was in a small local place off one of the side streets, and like every other meal we had in Korea was utterly delicious and shockingly cheap. The dance club itself was intensely swanky, we looked and felt pretty out of place. Though I had fun dancing and seeing how the other half live for an evening. We all had a lot more fun at a restaurant / bar we went to post-clubbing. I enjoy drinking with good friends and good conversation much more than in a dark cavern where you can't even hear yourself think. The next morning we were ready to explore a bit more of what Seoul had to offer.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Jeju Islands Gorgeous Geology

In a lot of ways Jeju Island is Korea's answer to Hawaii. Both are getaway islands where you can visit someplace exotic without leaving your home country. Both are also massive shield volcanoes looming out of the sea.  In fact, geologically Jeju shares many traits with the Big Island of Hawaii. The Big Island is still active, erupting even as I write this.  Halle-San, the volcano that makes up the bulk of Jeju Island, is sleeping for now.

It last erupted about a thousand years ago, which is only an eyeblink in geological terms. During one of those past eruptions in carved out a few fantastic lava tubes. Lava tubes are formed when the top of a lava flow cools and hardens, insulating the center of the flow. This allows the molten rock to travel further down the flanks of the volcano, and leaves behind some pretty interesting caves. Jeju has two lava tubes of note, one the longest known specimen. The other is one of very few lava tubes to feature stalactites and stalagmites.

Stalactites and stalagmites are formed in limestone caves, but the black basalt of Jeju (or Hawaii) holds none of the minerals required for them to form. Except one of the lava tubes spent some time under the sea, and a layer of dead shellfish formed over the lava. After it surfaced, rainwater filtered through the shells and into the cave, bringing with it the lime needed to make the stalactites formations.  

For lunch we went for a local specialty, pan grilled black pork. It was heaven. You layer tender strips of pork, some kimchee, some garlic and some hot sauce on a lettuce leaf and make your own Korean fajita burrito. Everything but the pork has free refills, which encourages eating a lot of veggies. I can really get behind vegetables that have been dosed with plenty of garlic and chili pepper. 

On the other side of the island looms Sunrise Peak, a tuff cone built from the explosive meeting of lava and seawater. It was formed about 5,000 years ago, and is one of the most famous and beautiful spots on the island.

The hike up was short but steep, and the late summer heat left us all soaked in sweat. But as always, the view was worth it. It was very, very worth it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flyin Out

I have a confession to make. I haven't flown since I arrived back in Japan in March 2010. That is a long time for a travel hungry person such as myself! A total of four friends of mine were on board for summer vacation in Korea, but our start points were scattered all across Japan. The first part of my journey was in the company of my good friend Marcos.

Our flight originated at Haneda International Airport, which has actually been the domestic hub for Tokyo for the past few decades. Haneda is placed pretty close in to the city, and makes for a very convenient departure point. A brand new International Terminal was completed last year to service more flights to Asia and the United States. Part of the reason for this is the convenient location, and part to relieve pressure from Narita Airport, the primary International hub. Ironically Narita was built when it was deemed to expensive and difficult to expand Haneda in the first place!

Security in Haneda was quick and easy, yet still thorough. All of the people manning the machines were polite young women, with the older more muscle-bound types standing back. It was a revelation. The customer gets a fantastic, stress-free experience, without compromising safety. I hope the US learns that lesson some day.

Our flight was quick, smooth and generally uneventful, which is exactly what you want! We flew into Gimpo International, which is Seoul's equivalent of Haneda, taking a backseat to the larger and newer Inchon Airport. I collected a new stamp for my passport, cleared customs and we met up with the third member of our Group, Peter. Our next flight was to Jeju Island, essentially the Hawaii or Okinawa of Korea, an island of beaches, volcanoes and relaxing.

It was pouring rain in Seoul, but the weather in Jeju was said to be cloudy to clear, but no precipitation. Phew. Nobody wants to see their beach holiday rained out!

The flight was short and sweet, and around half way the whole plane joined in to play the Korean version of Rock Paper Scissors. As English teachers we are well versed in the intricacies of "Janken" and we did well, but none of us won. After we endured a hair raising taxi trip to our hostel (lanes were a mere suggestion, and red lights may as well have not existed for this driver) we tucked in to our first real Korean meal. Braised fish in spicy chile ginger sauce and seafood stew. I didn't try the stew, being a bit averse to shellfish, but the fish was amazing, the soft mild meat a drastic contrast to the spicy flavors of the sauce. Already our trip was looking successful.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Living on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from your birthplace is a sure way to make you miss things you used to take for granted. I am a pretty hungry guy, so a lot of what I miss is food related. Things have actually gotten a lot better over the years, and I can find almost anything I want these days. Almost.

Enter the newest Costco in Japan. For those who don't know, Costco is a wholesale style buyers club where you can get steep discounts by buying way more of a product than you really need. The local expats here enjoy it because it often has American and foreign goods that you just cant find anywhere else. People have long trekked into the neighboring prefecture of Saitama for a chance to fill their fridge with a dozen bratwurst. Now Maebashi has its very own store, filled with just about everything.

This was my first trip to a Japanese Costco, and it was fascinating, and cart filling. Much of the basic offerings are the same as in the states, huge bags of candy, great cuts of meat, giant blocks of cheese and more. Though there were nods to the Asian location as well, with tubs of kimchee and pallets of ramen noodles on offer too. One funny thing I noticed is that the books they had were almost universally in English, which seems strange. They must sell, because I can`t imagine them stocking them otherwise. One thing that shocked us was the sheer number of people buying frozen pizzas. The Costco frozen pizza is far cheaper than anything in the stores here, but is also far larger. Knowing the relative size of Japanese freezers and ovens, I was wondering just how this was going to work. My ride, a local, let us befuddled Americans in on the secret. People will cut up the pizza before its cooked so it will fit in the oven. Ingenious, if a little time consuming.

Being that it was opening weekend, things were pretty wild. Carts jockeyed for position with all the fervor of a Formula 1 race, and more than a few heels got nailed by the cart behind. Overall though, I was impressed with the efficiency of the staff. The lines were long but they moved quickly, much more so than I had expected. The famous Hot Dog and Drink combo was in full effect, a dirt cheap 250 yen. That and a slice of pizza for under 500 yen? I am sold!

In the end I came away with quite a few goodies, including a 24 pack of non-name brand microbrew, a box of raisin bran, some bratwurst, some pre-cooked breakfast sausage patties (they didn't have fresh sausage, alas) and a giant bag of limes. On the list for next time is real ground beef (its often mixed with pork here), tons of cheese, New York cut steaks and more. It is really nice to have this sort of thing lurking in the neighborhood, even if I will need to beg for rides and the use of my friends membership cards!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rolling Thunder

I am happy to report my computer issues have been resolved, for now. In celebration, and while I process my Korea pictures, I present a few shots I took a couple of weeks ago when a huge thunderstorm rolled over Maebashi. I was lucky enough that the center of the storm stayed away from my area, offering a perfect view of the fireworks with none of the pouring rain or power outages others had to deal with. These are certainly the best lightning photos I have ever had the privilege to take.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Korea Bound

I apologize for the sudden absence of blog posts. My computer has developed some problems that have kept me offline for a week. I will be off for a bit longer, as I am departing for Korea tomorrow morning. Three days on the beaches of Jeju Island and three days in Seoul should provide a fantastic vacation! Expect plenty of photos and stories when I get back, and when I fix the computer.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Sky High Fish

One of the benefits of living on the edge of the Kanto Plain is that you are never very far away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Last weekend I had the chance to meet up with a friend and spend some time just exploring the city.

Since we had no plan or any particular places to go, I recommended a Chipotle-esque burrito restaurant in the Roppongi neighborhood. Mexican food of all stripes is hard to come by in Japan so I often seek this place out when I visit the capital. After lunch we had some time to kill before we caught trains for home, and happened to see a poster advertising a Sky Aquarium on the upper floors of the Mori Tower. With the prospect of fish and city views, we felt like this was a fantastic idea.

Interestingly enough the aquarium displays were much more about aesthetics, and much less about science. There were no captions, no explanations, not even any lists of what fish were in each tank. All you had to go on were the tanks, environments and the moody lighting.

The effect was perfect. Rather than worry about what fish you were looking at, you could just enjoy their beauty. Though this guy was less beautiful and more kinda freaky looking.

The final room was the best, full of soft colored lights and gently undulating jellyfish. 

Anytime you step out of your door an adventure awaits, and that is especially true when taking impromptu trips to Tokyo. You just never know what you'll find around the next corner. We can only hope it will always be as fantastic as burritos and 50th floor clown fish.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bellies Bellies Everywhere...

It seems that Japan hardly needs a reason to throw a festival, which is fine because I hardly need a reason to attend one! I recently visited the nearby city of Shibukawa for the Heso Matsuri, also known as the Bellybutton Festival. While there are a fair number of ancient fertility festivals held around Japan, with some rather suggestive floats, the bellybutton doesn't seem like a body part worth celebrating.

The roots of this particular celebration are much more recent and have to do with the fact that Shibukawa is located close to the geographical center point of Japan. The bellybutton of the country, so to speak. Nothing terribly sacred, the festival is more an attempt to drum up visitors and economic opportunities. Which is fair enough. These days even the most ancient festivals, steeped in Shinto lore are becoming much more about eating, drinking, and having a good time than celebrating anything profound. Not that I find anything wrong with walking around with a beer in one hand and fried chicken in the other while admiring ancient floats.

Sadly, there are no floats or portable shrines at the Heso Matsuri. There were some pretty entertaining taiko performances though. The main attraction is a pair of parades with shirtless people dancing by with faces painted on their bellies. The first parade was small children, and most of them were not having any of it. I don't know if I have ever seen such a group of youngsters who were so upset at their lot in life. Some were outright bawling. Though a few had a pretty big smile.

The adults certainly had a bit more fun. Their improved mood may be due in part to the beer carts that followed each group of dancers to provide refreshment in the summer heat. While the whole affair was interesting, I would hardly call it compelling. Really the Heso Matsuri was a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends, but it wasn't much more than that.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Departures This Way...

The life of an English teacher in Japan sometimes seems to have even more violent ups and downs than might be the case in a more normal environment. One area of both opportunity and loss is the revolving door of friendship. I have found that living overseas tends to attract some truely amazing people, and many of my best friends are ones I met here.

However the very nature of the life means that for most it is a temperary distraction, and so when their year or two or five is up, they amble on home and out of your life. This always brings the the chance of an awesome replacement, but it also means that bittersweet goodbyes are a common element to life here.

Late July and early August is the departure and arriveal time of the famous JET program, and so it is packed with exits and is always a hard time for those staying behind.

The next couple of weeks will see me saying farewell to two very different best friends.

Five years ago I welcomed Travis into the Kanazawa community and quickly made a fast friend. We traveled together, drank together, survived earthquakes together and moaned about women together. He didnt live in Kanazawa, but was close enough that it was a rare weekend he didnt end up crashing on my spare futon. I dont know if I can count all the good times we had scarfing yakitori and litres of Asahi.

Then I left. He was one of the last people I saw in Japan, coming all the way to Osaka to bid me farewell with a day at Universal Studios.

When I returned to Japan last year we picked up right where we left off, with chicken on a stick and huge mugs of ice cold lager. We havent seen each other as often as we might like, living 4 hours and one very expensive train ride away, but our friendship has never been stronger. I know that Travis will be one of those people that I am in touch with for a very, very long time. Soon we will once again be saying not so much Good Bye as See You Later.

Also exiting soon is Anna, my closest neighbor and most likely closest friend in all Gunma. I feel it is rare to find a beautiful, intelligent woman who can sling poo jokes with the best of them. She dishes out, and takes, all manner of playful abuse with a smile and a toss of her red hair. Though you dont get to best friend status by simply trading barbs about being from Americas Hat. You get that by being there for someone, and she certainly stepped up to the plate. It is no secret that I had some emotinally dark days this spring, and Anna was there 100% with a friendly ear. We always need someone we can talk to, and someone to offer advice. Though I havent always taken her advice, I certainly appreciate her offering it.

Even though we have only been friends since January, we have packed years worth of experience into those few months. We have gone biking up mountains, dancing in Tokyo, to the zoo, to a soccer tournament, to karaoke and more. I dont think I could have asked for a more hilarous and grounded friend. Though her views on penguins, and their proper place in a relationship, leaves a bit to be desired...

Two Best Friends will leave us this month, and our lives will undoubtably be the poorer for it. But of course my life would have been all the poorer had I never met them, and in that there is plenty of solace to be found. Companions for five years or a few months are better than no companions at all, especially when they are of this quality. And now I must look to the future, and the further unknown friends who wait just over the horizon.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


A pair of thunderstorms rolled over Maebashi last night. Of the 18 photos I shot, these were the only two that caught Thor in action, but I'm still pretty pleased with that result, especially the bottom one.