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.