Monday, August 28, 2006

Concerning Peaches and Other Foods

Why do American peaches suck so much? I just had a Japanese peach, which is probably quite similar to the peaches in the stories that mom always told me about her childhood. She used to tell me stories about huge, furry peaches that were juicy and delicious, but all the peaches I have ever had in the US were small and bald, and their taste was just like the peaches you get from a can. I have never been impressed by peaches. But I just ate a Japanese peach, and my opinion of peaches is changed. At the same time, I am filled with sadness. Were American peaches once like Japanese peaches, until some jerk farmer decided to select peaches that were more durable over peaches that tasted better? Who ever thought that it would be a good idea to grow small peaches that almost taste like potatoes rather than delicious, juicy peaches that are so big they fill you up? The downside of the Japanese peach: costs 400 yen, about $4 a peach.

Anyway, forgive the rant about the inferiority of American peaches. The rest of this entry with mostly deal with delicious food. As it turns out, Manabu is a fantastic cook. He tries to always use organic components and makes things from scratch, if he can. Here is the pasta he made, the warm up for his magnum opus, which comes later in this post. The pasta was quite good and came with a simple salad. Manabu eats Natto (fermented and moldy soybeans, very popular among old Japanese people, and one of only 3 Japanese foods on my blacklist) with just about every meal. He even mixes it with pasta (which wasn't too bad, actually).

Last week on Monday I met with Yuichi in Shinjuku. We had Ramen and went shopping for a phone for me. He just started a new job too. On Tuesday I went with Manabu to his seminar at Hosei University, met his friends and corrected the English in the letters they had written to the faculty of Vietnam University (which they are about to go and visit). Halfway through my visit, Tomoko showed up. We chatted until Manabu was done, then went to the station to go back to Manabu's place. Observe my new “Suica” train pass! After we all came back to Manabu's apartment, Manabu made us soba BY HAND. He used nothing but pure buckwheat flower and water. Here he is rolling the dough, and looking quite studly. Here he is, individually cutting each noodle. And enjoying the finished, cooked product. Manabu's Soba is spectacular. I have begun to try to encourage him to move to Hawaii and start an organic sobrestaurantnt. The next day was my first day on training. My first day of work. Here I am, 1 and a half hours early on my first day, in my suit and ready to go. I have decided that I am not going to include work in this blog. To do so would be irresponsible. Publishing information about my company could breach my contract if accidentallyly divulged a company secret, and publishing information about students, teachers or schools could, on occasion be unethical. Suffice it to say, this week I was in training to become an elementary school teacher. Training was fun, but wearing a suit in Japan is torture. I commuted 1 hour each way by on a crowded Subway everyday, with a 15 pound briefcase and trained for an average of 8 hours a day. They still don't know which schools I am going to be at, where I am going to live, when I am going, or anything else (which has me pulling my hair out). I should find all that out tomorrow. We are having training in Asakusa, which has festivals frequently. Here is the Samba festival, which was taking place one day. Great festival, but really crowded train ride home. Asakusa is cool for other reasons. Kaminari Mon, one of the symbols of Tokyo, is located there. There is also this cool little ice cream shop where they have strange ice cream flavors like Natto, Potato, Salt, Corn, Ginger, etc. The people there are also really nice. So, on Sunday night, Manabu cooked his ultimate dish for me and his friend Yuta. Manabu's Sashimi Tako (raw octopus) was nothing short of incredible. When you began to chew the octopus, your mouth exploded with flavor. Garlic, salt, olive oil, octopus! I cannot describe the exact effect of this explosion of flavor because I am trying to keep my blog PG-13, but I think you get the general idea. Manabu is going to do quite well when he starts his owrestaurantnt in Hawaii. Sorry I have not kept more current with what is taking place this week. I have been so busy that is has been difficult to find the time to write. Unfortunately, this week's adventure is work, and I don't plan on saying much about that. Anyway, stay tuned, because the next time I post I will probably have moved into my owapartmentnt in Shibukawa!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Leaving Korea and Coming to Japan

Well, as I mentioned in the previous, very brief post, I am now in Japan and staying with Manabu. It is nice here. The weather is better than Korea, I understand what people are saying (about 70% of the time as opposed to my 5% comprehension rate for Korean), and I know where I am. So far I have been taking it easy in Japan. I kind of have to. I need to rest up because my job starts on Wednesday and I still have not completely gotten over my jet lag (thanks to not being able to sleep very well in Korea). I really want to be well rested for my job. I figure I will not have time to relax for the first month. Living here is going to be difficult, but it will be easier if I work very hard in the first month to be good at my job and to make friends outside of work. This may be the last post with pictures for some time as well, due to the fact that I haven't yet figured out how I am going to manage getting internet service.

Speaking of pictures, we should get back to Korea, where I was in the middle of having dinner with Sung Eun.
I gained a little weight around the midsection in Korea, and here is why. My friends were always treating me to lunch and dinner. However, this made me feel guilty, so I insisted that I treat them to ice cream so that I could feel less like a leech. As a result, I ended up eating ice cream with almost every meal. In case you are wondering, this is not ice cream, but a Korean form of shaved ice called "Bing Soo". It ranges in flavor from delicious to...not delicious. This one, from Baskin Robins, had tomatoes. Tomatoes are not good in Bing Soo.
This is Sung Eun leaving on the bus. Kind of sad because I don't yet know when the next time I will see my Korean friends is. When they come to Japan this year, I hope...
So, that night I spent my last night in the hostel, which was not very restful because, once again, it was hot. Lynn had said she wanted to take me to the airport, but because she was working all night, I was only able to get a hold of her 20 minutes before I planned on leaving. She decided that she wanted to take me to the airport anyway, even though she had been working all night. Once again, she paid for everything, which puts me even further into debt to her. I definitely don't deserve all of the kindness that she has shown me. I'll do my best to make it up to her in the future, if she'll let me.

Anyway, I ended up needing to pay the overweight baggage fee at Incheon airport, which left me with about 1000 won, or roughly a dollar. The plane flight was made short by the fact that I randomly started talking to my two Japanese neighbors on the plane
(I've been randomly talking to people a lot, actually). Arrived in Narita, got through immigration with out a hitch, got my bags (total weight 70 kilograms!) and began my trek to Harajuku station. Here are my bags at Harajuku station.
Manabu picked me up at the station, and we took a taxi to his apartment (which is nice!). Then we immediately went off to the Azabu Juban Matsuri. The only time I have seen more people than I saw at the Azabu Juban Matsuri was when Deigo and I went to Halloween in the Castro. This time wasn't as scary, even though more people were drinking. I tried to get a picture to show you how crowded it was, but none of them turned out. Since Japanese people tend to have black hair, my camera kept over exposing the photos, which turned out blurry. We did see this. Cooked whole fish!
And I tried some.
I also ate squid on a stick.
The Matsuri was interesting. Lots of food stalls, lots of games, bon dancing, talent shows, and lots of people. Here is something that caught my eye as a little strange. This is a game that we passed on the street. Take a good close look at the prizes, especially the top row.
Manabu and I returned from the Matsuri and did laundry. While we were waiting for it to be done, we played Jenga. I won.
The next day I set off early to meet Akira, an American who lives in Gunma, who was interested in having me as a roommate. Getting from Tokyo to Shibukawa is not easy, as I discovered. It takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes if you take the train that stops at every station, but only 1 hour and 30 minutes if you take express trains and shell out an extra ¥2000 for the Shinkansen (bullet train). Actually, I got on the wrong train one time, asked a girl on the train where I should get off, and disembark 5 minutes later having made a friend (I guess). I arrived 20 minutes late. I met with Akira, and he seemed like a good guy. Also, the price of the room, fact that there was no deposit and was in a good location were all pluses. But when I stepped into the house I could smell the mold. Since living around mold makes my life hellish, I decided I had to pass on the offer (which means, yes, I will, in fact, be very broke this year). Akira also gave me a little bit of a tour around Shibukawa "city". My first impression? Shibukawa reminds me a lot of Minden, NV. Close to a lot of really great natural wonders and resorts, but as a town not terribly convenient. Looks like I'll be spending a lot of time studying and working this year. This picture makes it look deceptively dense.
Akira and I parted ways, and I waited for a little while until Keiko, my local Gunma connection, showed up. As you can see, being back in Japan has been really good for her. She looked healthy and her energy level was higher. She is forcing me to speak almost entirely in Japanese to her, which I really appreciate. She showed up in her car, a cute little Mazda, and I realized for the first time that Keiko really enjoys driving. Maybe I should have asked her to drive for me in California.
Well, we drove around Shibukawa for a little while looking for a restaurant. We stopped at the local convenience store and asked, and discovered that there aren't any. So we drove to Maebashi, the capital of Gunma prefecture and its largest city. Maebashi was much more happening than Shibukawa. Driving around Maebashi we discovered that there was a festival in front of the "Kencho", the gigantic center of government. This is me posing with the mascot of Gunma, the horse.
And this is the "Kencho", a 32 floor monster of a building that houses the government offices for Gunma prefecture. How a prefecture with 2 million people can afford such a gigantic and elegant building, I'd love to know.
This is looking up towards Shibukawa (after the third bend in the river) from the observation deck of the Kencho...
From the second best bathroom in the world.
The Maebashi Matsuri was really small. Maybe only 1,500 people showed up. Food was good, but too expensive and not enough of it. So Keiko and I went to "Joyful", a "Family restaurant". Basically, think IHOP, but in Japan and cheaper.
Joyful sure was cheap, and it was fun just to be with Keiko. See how I can keep things positive! So, last on our make-it-up-as-we-go tour, Keiko and I went to the University of Gunma and she made me a poster that basically says "I'm new in town, speak English and am looking for friends". She has very nice handwriting, so I am expecting to hear from a lot of men.
On the train ride back, I saw an old man reading an English language newspaper, and what started out as a request to read it when he was done turned into a 2 hour conversation about English education with a man who had clearly taught himself by reading the newspaper every day and no other method. His vocabulary was at a university level, but his pronunciation was that of a true beginner.

Today I met with Yuichi, and we went cell phone shopping. So many options, and I don't know anything about any of them. Buying a cell phone is going to be a real learning experience. But so is everything when you don't understand 30% of what is going on. But that is why I'm here, after all.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Made it to Japan

Hey everybody, I am in Japan with Manabu. We are off to the Azabu Juban Matsuri! Later!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Two Days of Nams

Well, things have gotten a little out of order since I felt I needed to write about the finger incident right away. So now we have to go back 2 days to Wednesday, the day I went to the mall with the first of the Nams in this post: the Nam sisters, Lindsey and Lindsey's sister (I would recognize her name if I heard it, but it was too difficult for me to have the ability to recall it. I'm really sorry, Lindsey's sister!).

On Wednesday, we spent most of our time eating. First "Omrice", which is omelets packed with rice...Then yoghurt...
Then we ate this. Serves 4, we only had three. Still we ate everything...
And then went and got more ice cream at the Haagen-Daz shop. In between eating we went to a bookstore where Lindsey helped me pick out a cool looking Korean textbook. Then we went to a movie by Miazaki's son (which was terrible). Basically, it was a really relaxed day that allowed us to talk and allowed my sunburns to recover. I have come to the conclusion, by the way, the the national pastime of Korea is, in fact, going out on dates. Everything is geared towards couples and you see couples everywhere. After Haagen-Daz, I went home, the finger in the fan incident took place, and I took this picture of the people at the hostel.
Thursday I was scheduled to meet Sohyun and Boeun in Chungmuro so that we could go to the Namsan Cultural Village. Dongdaemun, the really cheap place for shopping, is on the way, and since I have run out of clean clothes, I decided to stop there and get another $10 shirt. 2 shirts, 1 stainless steel watch, and five pairs of running socks later (total cost $35!) I was late. However, I arrived a good 25 minutes before Boeun, which gave Sohyun and I some time to talk about stuff. Here is the Namsan Cultural village, and the slopes of Namsan, the second Nam mentioned in the title.
Here is me playing a game that was either played by kings or kids. I forget exactly what Boeun said. Regardless, I am good at it!
Sohyun and Boeun giving it a shot...
Me, walking like a scholar.
This is when we discovered that Honolulu is one of the sister cities of Seoul.
Me, the the Namsan Tower in the distance. Later that day, Sohyun and I went to the top of that tower.
This is the place where they used to send smoke signals from on Namsan.
Korea is populated by thousands of identical apartments, as you can see here.
The central business district of Seoul, and the Blue House, center of government.
The urinal that I took the previous picture from. Best toilet in the world...
And a soccer ball chia pet.

Now there is one story that I really need to tell you because it made me so happy. When we were in Namsan Tower, Sohyun went over and assisted a Japanese woman who was having a problem working the binoculars. When she came back over I mentioned that what she had just done was very kind, to which she replied "When we were in America you were really nice to us and you said that in return we should try to help foreigners when we return to Korea. I think about that a lot." That made me so happy. It is my philosophy that little kind actions add up, and that being kind in a big way effects more than just the person you were kind to. Because I was kind to Sohyun, she goes out of her way to help a Japanese woman, who then has a better impression of Korea. She might go home and rave to her husband about how nice the Koreans are, and he will question his long held beliefs about Korea. It is impossible to say that any of this will happen, but when you risk very little to be kind, do you have any excuse not to try? On the other hand, some people risk a lot to be kind. One example is all of the people that have gone out of their way to help me in Korea. I want people that see a confused foreigner and try to help to feel rewarded, so every person that has randomly helped me, be it on the subway, on the train, or on the bus, I have given them some of the chocolates that I bought in Hawaii. By the way, I'm running out of chocolates.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hell Filled With Angels, aka I get lucky again

I suppose it is time that I really told you about my hostel. It is the hottest place in Seoul. When I walk into the gate, I am always amazed by the wall of heat and humidity that hits me. There is no air circulation here. No breeze to cool it down. 20 feet away is a 10 foot diameter, 7 foot high pile of stinky garbage that just sat there for a couple of days. I already mentioned the bar next door. The bar provides us with our fair share of drunks. I am angry at one in particular who went on an anti-Japanese tirade and made Yukari, the Japanese girl you had been sharing a suite with me, cry. Lastly, the bathroom is just scary.

So why stay? It can't be worth $11 a night. Even I don't think so. I haven't spent very much money in Korea. I should just get a good $40 hotel and be comfortable right? Some place with airconditioning, a bathroom, a door that locks. Well, I can't. The people here are so nice that it makes all those other problems evaporate. And, weird stuff keeps happening. Allow me to show how, with a story.

What I should really have called this entry, but chose not to so as not to worry anybody, is "I Still Have 10 Fingers!!!" My finger was almost cut off tonight, which would have put a real kink in all my plans. I'll spare you the details about how bad this would have actually been. Lets just say, it would have been bad.

So, it was really hot in my room. I had been using the rotating fan to keep the air circulating between the window and the door. It was really hot, so I had the fan of "high". I was getting a little hot, so I went over to turn it towards me. I grabbed the top of the fan to adjust it. But since I have such small hands, the ring finger of my left hand slipped between the grill that protects things from the spinning blades. A blade hit my finger, and broke. The broken blade spun around inside the cage hitting things and being sliced into smaller pieces by the other blades, finally the blade got stuck and the motor shutdown. Meanwhile, I pulled out my finger, and all I could see was blood at first it looked like the first centimeter had been cut clean off. I felt no pain at all, strangely. I calmly unplugged the fan, walked to the bathroom and washed my finger when the blood cleared away I was amazed to discover that the finger was still there, just badly mauled and bleeding like crazy. I still felt no pain, but I was beginning to feel really bad about the fan. It had bacisically been completely destroyed. The metal gril was even torn open in places thanks to the shrapnel from the explosion. I carried the fan down to the main office, of the hostel, told them what had happened, apologized and asked them what the fan cost. Then, rather than giving me a band-aid, which was all I needed, miraculously, they yanked the fan out of my hands and threw it aside, forced me to sit down, and began to tend to my wound. Everyone was so concerned that they were basically fawning over me like I had just had a head injury. They wouldn't even talk about getting a new fan. "A person is more imoirtant than a machine" the manager said. I agreed, but since I knew I was OK, I didn't understand all of the fuss. But it was a very touching fuss.

I could have easily lost that finger in that fan. The plastic that was used in the fan was heavy duty. And the fan spun with enough force to tear the metal of its cage. However, earlier today, one of my roommates bumped into the fan, it fell to the floor, and one of the blades cracked. That crack made the blade weak enough so that it broke before my finger. I am so lucky this week. Here is hoping I can make it last.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Korea's Kool!

Of course, I mean cool in a figurative sense. It is actually so hot that it hurts. Look at this thermometer! Those are degrees Celsius!!OK, no, it's not 70 degrees Celsius. Anyway, on to the story of the last 2 days. Well, if you don't already know it, Korean food has become my favorite food in the world (sorry Japanese food!). Part of the reason that Korea is great is the abundance of Korean food. Now, I kind of think good food can be broken down into 4 categories: food that is good for you, food that tastes good, food that is good (either because of the love that went into making it, the company of people that you love, or the circumstances under which you eat it), and food that looks good. Well, the new champion in the pure flavor category is the Bi Bim Bap shown below. It was just some Bi Bim Bap from a little known out of the way shop, but the flavor was basically driving me insane. I was honestly trying hard not to vocalize my elation.
Well, that was on Monday at around 1pm. Before I ate the super Bi Bim Bap, I spent most of my day relaxing and playing on Google Earth with my very nice Japanese suitemate (seriously, almost everyone at the hostel is really nice, which is one of the only reasons that I stay in this sweltering armpit rather than moving to the air conditioned and clean hostel like the French guy did). I had no plans to meet anyone on Monday, so I spent my day walking somewhat randomly through Seoul. Here I am at KU, Korea University. KU and Yonsei have some of the most beautiful campuses that I have ever seen. Way more attractive than Davis. All my Korean friends must have been disappointed when they saw UC Davis for the first time. KU looks like a mix between Yale and a French palace from the baroque period. Davis is nice too, but it doesn't look this spectacular (or clean).
After KU I went to Dongdaemun, which is a big gate in the middle of a round about. The gate was neat...
But the riverside park a stone's throw away was amazing! Seoul has this creek running through it, and along the sides of the creek is a green belt that stretches for miles. Best yet, the water is clean, and you can swim in it. On a hot day, thousands of families with small children line the river, especially under the bridges, and splash around with their children. The architecture of the place is really well done. Despite the fact that there is a major road on either side of the green belt, it is easier to hear the sound of water than the sound of traffic.
Dongdaemun is also a major shopping area, so I bought myself a really nice shirt for $10. Turns out I was supposed to bargain. Oops. I love my new shirt. It is designed for this type of heat. After that I walked down the Euljiro tunnel for several miles...
Until I got to City Hall. At City Hall I got Kim Bap. 3000 Won, and it is the size of a burrito and contains meat. It was also good. As good as it could have been after that Bi Bim Bap.
So, as it turns out, the 15th is "Liberation Day". When I walked by City Hall on the night of the 14th, there was a concert going on and it looked like this.
"Liberation Day" is the day that Korea got independence from Japan. Basically, the end of WWII. After 7 hours of non-stop walking I was getting a little tired, and since I was supposed to meet Lynn in Sinchon, I figured I would go to Yonsei University and relax. Besides, I wouldn't want to only visit KU! That would be playing favorites! So, Yonsei University has an 8 lane road in front of its gates. The crosswalk only turns on once every 5 minutes or so, and you have to cross quickly because the signal only lasts enough time for a person to walk over at a brisk pace. As I sat on the far side of the street, I saw that there was a large group of people just in front of the gates that seemed to be singing and celebrating. From 100 meters away, at night, it looked like a lively Liberation Day celebration. I crossed the street at the light, and found myself suddenly part of the group. What I thought had been singing, was in fact chanting. And it was not a Liberation Day clecbration, but a very animated anti-American protest. What I thought had been school guards from a distance were, on closer inspection, police that were there to make sure the protest didn't get out of hand. "Wait," I thought to myself, "if I remember correctly, South Koreans are notorious world wide for having protests turn into riots." The chanting people, whom I was now in the very middle of, seemed very supprised to see me as well. I have never gotten so many threatening stares in my life. Having instantly gotten myself into a potentially very dangerous position I got myself out of it right away. I walked quickly away and hid behind a bush for 15 minutes. When the group had passed, I power walked over to a pay phone and called Lynn. She thought we should meet at Yonsei University, but I insisted on meeting her at her house. Anyway, got out of that one OK. Here is a statue of a tiger, the symbol of Korea, beating up an American GI that looks like a monkey. There was lots more stuff like this, but I wasn't exactly comfortable taking flash photography when I am trying not to draw attention to myself.
Well, I went to Lynn's house, and she, her friend Choi and I ate some green tea ice cream that I bought on the way.
So the next day, Lynn, Choi and I went on a day trip to Nami Island, recently famous because it was the set for some of the most important and romantic scenes in "Winter Sonata" the most famous and popular Korean drama, worldwide. It is a little island in the middle of a river. Very senic.
Here is the fantastic map that Lynn drew. You already know how hot I think it is when girls do cartography!
Oh, here is a picture from "Winter Sonata" that is posted along one of the trails. If you don't already know who these people are, they are named Yon-sama and Choi Ji-woo. They are basically the mascots of the globalization of Korean pop-culture, and probably the most recognizable Koreans in the world.
Here is the place where the famous "first kiss" scene was filmed.
Here is Lynn looking at the replica snowmen from the "first kiss" scene.
Me, pretending to be Archer Yi, but with a sligshot rater than a bow. Oh, and this is where we bought "Korean traditional junk food".
Me at the "Drama Cafe". Fitting name. This island was all about drama...
"Korean traditional lunch boxes" with travel buddies.
This shot sort of lets you see how beautiful everything was.
We had a very crowded train ride back to Seoul and ate again in Sinchon. We had Nengmyon, which is noodles on ice. It was then, after 5 minutes of failed attempts, that I earned the next belt in the art of chopsticks use by picking up a wet ice cube with metal chopsticks!!! Do I need a fork?! Bahh! Never!
By the way, be careful when saying the Korean word for chopsticks. If you pronounce Korean words with a Japanese accent (which I frequently do), when you try to say "chopsticks" you will actually be sexually harassing people. I try to keep this blog PG-13, so if you are interested in the meaning, contact me in person. And thank you, Lynn, for pointing out my error rather then letting me say it.