February 29, 2004

Awooga! Submarine Store

Eerie night-time shot through the only window of some foo-foo Aoyama couture shop. Shop had a big 'ole gray/green facade, no door that I could see and this single porthole-esque window facing the street.

Posted by pmk at 11:52 PM | Comments (2)

Sharpening 101

I dropped off off a bunch of high-end Henckels knives, a Japanese knife with a German stainless steel blade and an older Japanese knife with a carbon steel blade at Kiya about a week ago to be sharpened.

It takes a week for the knives to be sharpened, apparently because they sharpen all of them by hand. Off in one corner of store is some poor guy that just sits there and whets knives all day long. Shakeycam pic below.

With the exception of the Japanese carbon steel blade, all of the knives came back a little duller than I would have expected. They were sharp, without question, but they give a little bit more resistance than I would have hoped cutting into onions, radishes and other tough foods.

Shizuo Tsuji attributes this to the type of steel used to make the blade. Stainless steel blades "lose their edge quickly and resist honing" while a carbon steel blade "dulls relatively slowly, if well taken care of, and is easy to sharpen."

Of course, Tsuji also has a foreign-skis-won't-work-on-Japanese-snow moment a few sentences later:

There is a school of thought that Western whetstones are not appropriate for Japanese steel. This is logical, since Japanese whetstones were chosen over centuries to hone Japanese steel.

I've heard that when you use an evil foreign whetstone with a Japanese blade, it actually makes it duller! Watch out!!!

Posted by pmk at 10:01 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2004

Dining Alone (or how to have an incredible meal)

I went to yamanoue restaurant in Ochanomizu this week. This tempura restaurant is located inside of the yamanoue hotel. The hotel itself has a bit of Barton Fink to it -- a once grand hotel, where apparently a number of famous Japanese writers went to craft their novels in the 50s and 60s -- that has seen better days. The restaurant, though, is still at the top of its game.

I went by myself, since Yukari had some sort of business junket in Akasaka. When we've gone together, the service has always been incredible. Yukari thinks it's a combination of the fact that I'm a foreigner and that we eat like starving children. I was a little worried that, on my own, the experience wouldn't be as enjoyable.

No worries, though -- both the meal and the service were incredible. The food blew me away: highlights included tempura fiddleheads (kogomi), fugu shirako and shirakozake, a blend of fugu shirako and sake, warmed and served in a tiny porcelain cup.

But the tastiest morsel was a shiitake mushroom, lightly grilled, filled with chopped live shrimp (well, I guess it wasn't live by the time they got done chopping it) and then fried. While shiitake and shrimp have totally different flavors on their own, together they enhanced one another. The shiitake tasted more meaty and umami, while the mushroom accentuated the sweetness and texture of the shrimp. Incredible.

The whole experience was a little embarrassing, however. I was sitting at the counter and the restaurant was jam packed. While the other customers got their fixed courses, I kept on getting little tidbits from the chef and staff. "Oh, you haven't had this? You have to try it..." Many of these items were premiums. The fugu shirako, for example, commands a 3000 yen supplement. Halfway through the meal, three pieces of pristine sushi appeared out of nowhere. "I know you like sushi," explained the maitre d'. Which is true, but so did the other 15 people sitting at the counter, I'm guessing.

Even with all these extras, they charged me the same fixed price as everyone else. This is one gift horse I'm not going to be looking in the mouth.

Posted by pmk at 2:58 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2004

Japanese Language Assaulted: News at 11

Japanese, I'm told, is a carefully nuanced construct. Native speakers evaluate their own stature against that of their conversation partner and adjust their language to suit.

I, on the other hand, speak Japanese like Tarzan. I regularly confuse, baffle and, no doubt, offend those unlucky enough to be the targets of my basic Japanese.

Despite this, my Japanese instructor told me last week that it was time to write an essay about my life in Japan. "Use the example in the textbook as a model," he said, "Oh, and write it out by hand -- don't type it!".

Excellent. I can, if pressed, fill out a crossword puzzle in English semi-legibly, but that is the absolute limit of my calligraphic capabilities.

I did end up typing it out as a first draft, then writing it out by hand once I was done. Unfortunately I didn't quite finish copying it all out by hand in time for my lesson, so my hand-written version didn't capture the whole of my creative talents.

So, below is the result of my efforts, as corrected by my instructor this week. You can click the image to get a really big version. I've posted the full essay here. English translation here.

Posted by pmk at 2:42 AM | Comments (4)

February 23, 2004

Gift Melon

As a devoted scholar of Japan, I've read all of the important works of modern Japanese history.

A recurring theme in all such works is the gift melon.

For those not as studied, gift melons are fairly non-descript cantaloupes that are packaged in wooden boxes and then sold for outrageous prices. They are useful as gifts not because they are tasty, although I'm sure they are, but because the recipient knows exactly how much the gift cost.

I had figured that gift melons were some sort of Bubble artifact, surely long since disappeared from the Japanese landscape. No such luck. I spotted one in an Ebisu "fruit parlor" -- shaky cameraphone pics below. The most expensive melon is $150 (but get 2 for $250! buy now!).

Other melon links:

Posted by pmk at 2:28 PM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2004

Japan is a Country Built on Trust

If I had a dime (10 yen?) for every time someone has trotted out that old chestnut, I could hire the palm frond fanner/grape peeler that I've always wanted.

Sometimes, however, it's true. In a mad dash to make it to my cello lesson yesterday, I left my cell phone someplace. At first, I thought I might have left it at the post office, so I dragged my butt back to the post office and assaulted them with pidgin Japanese. Using very small words, they informed me that they didn't have my cellphone and that I was an impetuous foreign barbarian for even asking (not sure about the last bit).

So, I went back home to engage in the traditional cell phone divining ritual: calling yourself. If I had left my phone someplace in New York, this call would have one of two possible outcomes:

  1. The new "owner" of my cellphone would answer, mock me mercilessly, Seinfeld-style, and then hang up so he could make international calls to Tajikistan at my expense.
  2. The guy at the pawnship where my phone had been hocked would answer and demand a princely sum for the phone's safe return

So it would be fair to say that my hopes for cell phone recovery were not particularly high.

I called and someone answered in Japanese. Pulling out all the stops, I told him "This is my cell phone!". To which he replied:

Lots of Japanese I couldn't understand...Oh, the guy I took to the train station...Even more Japanese I couldn't understand.

Ah. I must have dropped my phone in a taxi that I'd taken earlier. Unfortunately, although I now knew where my phone was, I was also at my linguistic limits.


There is a simple, sure-fire way to solve this sort of problem in any foreign language. I'll give you the Japanese version below, but just learn its equivalent in any language that you don't speak, but wish you could, and you can be totally fluent within minutes. Here goes:

Nihongo wakarimasen. Sumimasen ga tsuma ni denwa shite kudasai. Denwa bango wa xxx-xxxx-xxxxx desu.

or "Sorry, I don't speak Japanese. Please call my wife at xxx-xxxx-xxxx." This remarkably simple sentence can make you effectively fluent in Japanese almost instantly. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, the cab driver came to our place, dropped off my phone and got a nice tip from a grateful gaijin.

After I got back upstaris to our apartment, Yukari told me that it would have been better to go to the liqour store and buy "beer tickets" so that I wasn't giving him cash. Yes, apparently you can buy gift certificates redeemable for beer at any liqour store here in Japan. Wild!

Posted by pmk at 3:12 PM | Comments (2)

February 16, 2004

Personal Cell Phone Repeater

Spotted on the subway: An advertisement for a personal cell phone repeater for your home or office. Improve your phone's reception and scramble your DNA at the same time!

(Update: The manufacturer's product page. English translation courtesy of the fish.)

Posted by pmk at 5:03 AM | Comments (1)

February 15, 2004

Nothing Says "I Love You" Like Snack Food

So the Church took a perfectly good holiday and turned it into a celebration of some possibly apocryphal guy getting his head cut off.

This has, of course, nothing on what Hallmark has done with it since. But all of this is peanuts compared to the Japanese adaptation of the holiday.

I could not walk anywhere in Tokyo since the middle of January without being assaulted by the Valentine marketing push. Everything from chocolate to Campari is pushed with a Valentine's spin from bus signs, hanging subway advertisements and billboards. Even foreign countries get in on the act: "Thailand is for Lovers."

The day does have one redeeming quality here, though. On Valentine's Day in Japan, women give the men gifts. Typically chocolate. Of course, like all things in life, there is no free lunch. One month later on White Day, men are expected to reciprocate.

Which brings me to the gift I received on Valentine's day. While others received trips to Thailand and Campari, I was the proud recipient of:

A rice cracker

OK, it was a heart-shaped rice cracker, but still.

I've got a month until White Day -- I figure that should be enough time to find a heart-shaped Dorito for Yukari.

Posted by pmk at 2:43 AM | Comments (3)

World Domination: Step 437 out of 3,182,192 Complete

So the Japanese government made a key tactical error recently and granted me an alien registration card. With this magic piece of plastic, I can enter into all sorts of scary contracts, setup bank accounts and more or less wreck havoc across the Japanese landscape.

Picture below, with the naughty bits fuzzed out. True to form, the photo makes me look nice and weird. This time it looks like I have some sort of bizarre skin rash. Nice!

Posted by pmk at 2:33 AM | Comments (3)