December 24, 2004

The Flying Pig

Folks are usually surprised to hear that Costco is in Japan. Like in the US, they offer bulk products at a significant discount (made even more significant by the crazy prices in most Japanese stores).

The problem for many people, though, is that the Japanese Costcos are located in the boonies. Without a car, they are basically inaccessible, since hauling back 36 rolls of toilet paper via bus and train is a bit unwieldy.

Enter The Flying Pig. Run by two expats, they will shop for you at Costco and then ship your goodies to you via the incredibly cheap and incredibly fast Japanese package system (a 28.5kg box, more than 50 pounds, costs about $8 to ship next-day).

The website features a weird mixture of American comfort food and Japanese necessities. Skippy Peanut Butter (I recently ordered 10 jumbo jars of Skippy Creamy) sits right next to Japanese soy powder.

I came across one weird thing that I came across in the family planning section, though.

  • Pregancy tester: check.
  • Condoms: check.
  • 3M Post It Notes 21 Pad Pack (7 Plain, 14 Colored): not entirely clear.

It must be a Japanese thing.

Posted by pmk at 6:32 PM | Comments (2)

December 22, 2004

Merry Chefmas

More stuff from Europe to come, but first a shout-out to my sister-in-law Yuki, who just started cooking school at the French Culinary Institute in New York.

She emailed us the picture below of her in her uniform, sending gourmet holiday greetings to one and all:

Posted by pmk at 6:02 AM | Comments (1)

December 15, 2004

Estruscan Chocohotel

We have been wandering generally northward from Rome, stopping in the ancient city of Todi, then taking the bus to Perugia.

Because we are traveling with our crazy Italian friend, we typically arrive at our destinations without any hotel reservations. Needless to say, this drives me absolutely batty. We've made out pretty well, though -- our hotel in Todi was cheap (about $100 per night), had a great restaurant and comfortable rooms.

In Perugia, we ended up in the Etruscan Chocohotel. Since Perugia is apparently famous for chocolate, some hotelier decided that a Chocohotel would be a big winner. The hotel, dedicated in equal parts to Etruscan and chocolate kitsch, has to be seen to be believed.

When you check in, you are handed your key along with a bar of hazelnut chocolate. The walls are stenciled with chocolate color paint. In some places the patterns are Estruscan, in others, they look like dripping chocolate. Sometimes the artist got really inspired and combined the two motifs -- ancient patterns melting slowly across the wall.

Half of the lobby is given over to a gigantic chocolate shop. Which sells, in addition to a dizzying array of chocolate, chocolate soap, chocolate liqour and chocolate cookbooks.

I can't easily post photos right now, but the hotel's web site gives a decent impression of the experience. I'll update with pictures when I can.

Posted by pmk at 11:41 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2004

Hacked Italian ATM

This ATM at the Linate airport in Milan had crashed out to its underlying Windows OS -- complete with a copy of Notepad running.

The ATM featured a full qwerty keyboard, so you could futz around with the operating system. The thought of the carabinieri arresting me when I had barely started my vacation stopped me from digging too much, but I couldn't stop myself from adding a small commentary. Click the picture below for more detail:

Posted by pmk at 2:44 AM | Comments (2)

December 13, 2004

Fields of Green

A few months ago, I left Japan for the first time since we arrived to go to Germany. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I took the train from Frankfurt Airport to Du:sseldorf. About 5 minutes outside of the airport, I looked out the window and was blown away by the amount of green outside. And, needless to say, the areas around Frankfurt Airport are not exactly the argicultural center of Germany.

You almost never see verdant fields of green in Japan -- a fleck of rice paddy here and a tree or two over there. Otherwise, as Yukari recently commented, concrete is the norm.

I mention this because I had the exact same impression as we drove from Malpensa Airport outside of Milan into the city. Even though the winter frost has already killed off much of the green in Northern Italy, it still looks much more fertile than anyplace I've ever seen in Japan.

Posted by pmk at 11:25 PM | Comments (1)

December 11, 2004

USB Toys

Weird USB-powered gadgets are nothing new, I'd never seen those two before:

USB battery recharger -- Toss your AAs in here and hook it up to your computer to top them off.

A USB ionic air purifier. Although the ion craze has died down in Japan a bit (previously, marketing material for almost everything, including shampoo and soda, seemed to scream about how it contained HEALTHY IONS!!!!). Want your laptop to smell like a thunderstorm? You need one of these.

Posted by pmk at 6:18 PM | Comments (4)

December 10, 2004

Matsushita Museum Gardens

In Kyoto, there's a hidden garden near Nanzenji owed by Matsushita, the parent company of Panasonic.

The garden is called Shinshin-an and the beautiful brochure that describes the gardens goes into great detail about the origin of the garden itself and its meaning to Matsushita's founder, Konosuke Matsushita.

Random folks can't wander onto the grounds -- you need an invitation. A few weeks ago, I tagged along with more important people on a guided tour.

The garden is surrounded by a high wall that separates it from the street outside. Although Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, the cityscape has received the same brutal architectural treatment as all of Japan's major cities. Standing outside the garden, you are decidedly in modern Kyoto.

When you step inside, though, everything changes. The noise from outside disappears, replaced with the burble of a stream that runs through the garden. Stones and moss, strategically wetted before your arrival so that they glint in the sun, invite you towards the gravel paths that meander through the grounds.

The place is a photographer's dream. I don't think it's possible to take a bad photo. Even with my dinky cameraphone and terrible eye, I got some very nice shots.

After getting the garden tour, we were invited to participate in a tea ceremony, using ceramicware that was both exquisite and incredibly expensive. One got the sense that dropping one of the cups, which are carefully cataloged and curated, would be an expensive faux pas.

I'll scan the brochure in when I get a chance, but here are two pictures taken in the garden:

Posted by pmk at 11:24 PM | Comments (2)

December 9, 2004

Numeric Keypads Galore!

The Japanese are obsessed with the numeric keypad (aka the ten key). At the big Yodobashi Camera in Osaka they have a whole display section devoted to the darn things. The Japanese must be doing a whole lot of addition and subtraction while I'm not looking.

Here are two of my favorites:

A wireless 10 key. Just hook up the included USB dongle and you can do your accounting from across the room!

If this one had one more feature, it would probably explode. Let's see: It's a USB ten key. It's a trackball. It's has arrow keys. It has 5 different calculator modes. When it's not hooked up to a computer, it's a standalone, solar-powered calculator.

And that's not all. It has a pantagraph system key for a good typing experience! No, I have no idea what that means either, but would you even consider buying a 10 key without a pantagraph system key? I know I wouldn't.

All this for only 5229 yen!

Posted by pmk at 11:01 PM | Comments (1)

December 8, 2004

Sexy New WiFi Detector Available

Canary Wireless has finally started shipping their Hotspotter -- a WiFi finder that displays the network name (SSID), channel and whether it is encrypted or not. I snapped one up today!

Up until now, I've been using a Smart ID WiFi detector. It's pretty sensitive, especially indoors, but since it doesn't tell you if the network is WEP/WPA encrypted or not, there's no way of knowing if you'll be able to easily connect once you fire up your laptop.

The Hotspotter, on the other hand, gives you all this information on its little screenlet. Now if only it had an external antenna jack....

Posted by pmk at 10:22 PM | Comments (26)

December 7, 2004

KKK Truck

Although weird Japanese English is arguably within the pervue of a different site, I coudn't let this one go by.

The black and chrome truck, parked on Roppongi dori, had us doing a double take.

There have been other sightings , so watch out.

Posted by pmk at 11:47 PM | Comments (3)

December 6, 2004

Gingko Adventure

Yukari's uncle sent us a bag of fresh gingko nuts (ginnan, in Japanese) from Tsuyama. I love gingko, although Yukari tends to be less enthusiastic, since they can be bitter.

Despite my love of gingko, I had no idea how to prepare these things. They look a little like oversize pistachios, but without a visible seam. Digging around on the Internet turned up only vague instructions on how to shell and roast these things.

Tsuji's indispensable book, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, is a bit more help:

The spongy outer covering is extremely odiferous and liable to rot, so it is usually removed before nuts are brought to market. This still leaves two layers for the cook to tkae care of. The nut cas is thin and be cracked easily with a nutcracker, a knife, or whatever; for the inner skin, drop shelled nuts into hot water on the fire for a few minutes to loosen skins, then rub skins away (in the water) with a slotted spoon.

So, armed with this information, I started my little gingko adventure. Details and more pics after the link below. Update: chuckers and patrick, readers, offer two different recipes in the comments -- check them out too!

Fresh gingko nuts

First, I needed to figure out how to crack these things open. I tried using the back of my knife, as Tsuji-san had suggested. This did not open the nuts, but it did cause the gingko to fly around the kitchen. An auspicious beginning.

Sensing that a different approach was necessary, I broke out the big guns:

The wily gingko proved no match for the hammer of justice:

Once shelled, I dropped the ginko into boiling water and tried to remove the inner skin using a slotted spoon, but had no luck. So I fished them out and removed them by hand.

Finally, I sauteed them in a bit of vegetable oil, added some salt and snarfed them down. Hurray for ginko!

Posted by pmk at 2:34 PM | Comments (13)

December 5, 2004

Love Jam

Ai Otsuka, a J-Pop star, has a new album called "Love Jam". I'm aware of this fact because there is a huge billboard at Harajuku crossing with a picture of Ai with strawberry jam spattered across her face.

The first time I saw this billboard, I was sure it had to be a riff on a particular brand of Japanese pornography (The link goes to the Wikipedia, so it's theoretically safe for work, but it contains explicit discussion of weird Japanese porno, so caveat emptor).

A recent guest had the same thought. After a single glance at the billboard, he remarked "It looks like she gave a strawberry a blowjob."

Interestingly enough, there are two different pictures of Ai dipped in jelly for the album's cover art. If you are a cheapskate and only spend $30, you get a picture of Ai with her mouth closed. Spend $38 on the CD+DVD set, though, and you get the photo below of Ai with her tongue a-wagging.

(Special thanks to Ted Warin for fact-checking assistance.)

Posted by pmk at 9:59 PM | Comments (15)

December 4, 2004

Tofu: The New Sushi

Many moons ago, eating sushi was an incredibly bold step, taken by only the most adventeruous gaijin. I mean, imagine. Eating fish. Raw. Heavens to murgatroid!

These days, you can buy sushi ("sushi"?) at Whole Foods. The guy who pumps your gas can probably rattle off his two or three favorite kinds of sashimi.

Luckily, though, there is a new food that seems to scare the pants off of first-time visitors to Japan: tofu.

Tell someone that you want to go to a tofu restaurant for dinner and a look of abject terror crosses their face. But, take them out for sushi and they'll order a second helping of uni and demand the house recipe for shiokara (fermented squid guts).

This is probably a direct result of tofu's close association with the American health food movement. So, instead of thinking of tasty dishes like agedashi tofu (fried tofu in a dashi broth), we think of a white, gelatenous slab, quivering on some hippie's plate. Perhaps accompanied by a mouth-watering double helping of steamed millet.

But in Japan, tofu covers an incredibly wide range of delicacies. You can get tofu hard, soft, freshly made (sometimes at your table), flavored (seasame, black sesame, and citrus are personal favorites), fried, grilled, boiled or freeze-dried. That's just scratching the surface and doesn't even begin to cover other tasty soy products, such as yuba (the yummy skin that forms when you heat soy milk) or okara, the lees of tofu production that add flavor to some Japanese dishes.

So, all you tofu haters -- come to Japan and discover the true (and truly delicious) nature of tofu.

Posted by pmk at 7:57 AM | Comments (3)

December 3, 2004

Japanese Advent Calendar

An advent calendar, for those not already familiar with the concept, is a calendar with a door for each day in December up until Christmas. The name derives from the latin adventus, which means coming -- the arrival, in this case, being the birth of Jesus.

Given how crazy the Japanese are for Christmas, I wasn't very surprised to receive a very cute Christmas card from our friend Rieko in the mail today. The card is a fold-out advent calendar with a map of Japan on it. Each door is an important city or place in Japan and behind the door is a food or cultural item that that city or area is famous for.

One small problem though: the advent calendar has 31 days, one for each day in December. Apparently we're no longer waiting for the coming of Christ with this calendar, but rather the coming of the New Year.

Maybe this is just a Japanese adaptation of a Western custom -- New Years is a much bigger holiday here, traditionally, than Christmas -- but since the calendar is entirely in English, I suspect some designer out there just didn't fully grasp the concept behind an advent calendar. I'm guessing this experience could be a common one in Japan. Thank goodness I'm not a born-again.

Posted by pmk at 12:27 AM | Comments (4)

December 2, 2004

Clever Starbucks Engineering

Every Wednesday I have a cello lesson in Ochanomizu. And every Wednesday, after my lesson, I stop at the nearby Starbucks for a latte and revel in America's international consumer empire.

Yesterday, I got my latte to go, along with some sort of heart-clogging pastry. They tossed the coffee and cookie into a paper bag, handed it over and I started off towards the subway.

When I grabbed my coffee out of the bag, I noticed that there was a green plastic plug stick into the hole in the lid, where you are supposed to drink from. "How clever," I thought, "They created a custom plug to stop the coffee from spilling inside the bag."

When I pulled the plug out, I noticed it wasn't a custom plug at all, but rather the top of a Starbucks plastic coffee stirrer. The shape is too perfect for this to be an accident -- the stirrer even plugs into the cup with a satisfying "click".

Some clever engineer someplace figured out that if they molded the top of the stirrer just right, it could double as a plug for the coffee cup.

This probably isn't new and it probably isn't unique to Japanese Starbucks. But it's the kind of elegant hack that makes me smile. Hats off to you, anonymous Starbucks employee!

Posted by pmk at 1:22 AM | Comments (0)

December 1, 2004

We Also Walk Dogs

When I was at the big Sega arcade (Joypolis -- I am not making this up) in Odaiba last week I spotted a bizarre game.

Called "Walk the Dog", it consists of a treadmill, a leash and a plastic puppy. You get to pick a breed of dog (Pug, Poodle or Golden Retriever) and then walk it through a virtual Japanese neighborhood.

You have to make sure you don't walk too fast or too slow, stop to let your dog take a leak and stop it from attacking cats or getting run over by insane bicyclists.

Leave it to the Japanese to turn a chore into a game. But, then again, I guess Atari did it once too.

Next up from Sega: Mowing the Lawn.

Posted by pmk at 12:05 AM | Comments (1)