Almost everyone who uses an Apple product has had an Apple Moment. It’s that little burst of joy when you discover a particularly clever bit of engineering. For example: if you accidentally pull the headphone cord out of your iPod while listening to it, it automatically pauses your music for you.
I had one of these this week. I bought a few Audible subscriptions to NPR programs to listen to while jogging. I was listening to Car Talk, but didn’t finish the episode. When I came back home, I threw the iPod into its cradle to charge and then forgot about it. The next day, I decided I’d finish listening to the Car Talk episode at my desk.
I fired up iTunes, found the Car Talk I’d been listening to and hit play. Much to my surprise, it started up exactly where I’d stopped listening on the iPod. Apparently, each time you sync up your iPod, it automatically synchronizes your bookmarks in any audio books you’re listening to. Since all Audible content is flagged as an audio book, this works for my radio programs too.
Small, smart touches that make it clear that someone over at One Infinite Loop was thinking. Brilliant stuff.
Two weekends ago, Yukari and I ran the Yokohama Marathon. Now, that sounds a lot more impressive than it actually was, since the Japanese call any kind of road race a marathon. We ran a whopping 10 kilometers.
The race was a big deal. Over 5,000 people showed up on a bright, surprisingly warm November Sunday to race. The mayor (Hiroshi Nakada, Japan’s youngest) started the race, dressed in full mayoral running regalia: wind breaker, sneakers, suit and tie.
The course, though, was awful. The race was billed as “oceanside”, but industrial would have been a better fit. Containers to the left of us, warehouses to the right, there we were, stuck in the middle, no view.
On top of that, the roads were fairly narrow, at least for the number of people in the race, so we spent the first 5km shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends. It’s probably the first time that my split on the last 5km was lower than my first 5km.
But it was fun and a good excuse to get out of the house on a Sunday. And I did get a spiffy certificate!
These signs were hanging in the hallway of a karaoke joint in Tokyo. Your guess is as good as mine as to how they got there.
It’s Fall in Tokyo, which means that matsutake mushrooms are showing up in restaurants and gourmet supermarkets all over Japan.
Matsutake are the truffles of Japan: fragrant, earthy and in incredible demand. They have never been successfully cultivated; they can only be harvested in the wild, where they grow near a certain type of oak tree.
While foreign matsutake, typically from China, are relatively affordable ($10 for 2 or 3 small mushrooms), Japanese specimens command a significantly higher price. A single, large mushroom, like in this picture, can cost $150 or more.
Oftentimes, the Japanese put this kind of price premium on domestic produce, even when there isn’t a noticeable difference between it and imported produce. Matsutake, however, seem to be an exception to that rule. The Chinese matsutake that we’ve bought have only a vague hint of the true matsutake aroma. Surprisingly, matsutake from the Pacific Northwest in United States are quite a bit better, but are difficult to find in Japan. But I’ve never had an imported matsutake that can hold a candle to a Japanese one.
When we were at shoumin last week, one of the customers brought in a small package, wrapped in moist paper towels. It was matsutake that he’d harvested the previous weekend! When I asked the chef about it later, he promised some tasty matsutake dishes the next time we came in. I can’t wait!
Nikhil, my erstwhile host brother, and his charming wife Sandra came to visit us a few weeks ago. They brought along a book for me in German called Darum nerven Japaner. The title, roughly translated, is “That’s Why the Japanese are Annoying”. It’s a collection of short vignettes about life in Japan, written by Christoph Neumann, a German expat.
It’s full of some really great anecdotes. He talks about a friend who, when he walked into his living room one day, found his roommate with a bag over his head, not breathing. He called the Japanese 911 (119, natch) and the emergency responders rushed in minutes later, but made sure to take off their shoes before entering the apartment to try and save his roommate. In Neumann’s words:
Hopefully it wasn’t because of the 15 seconds it took to take off their shoes that their patient died on the way to the hospital. But the persistance of this habit, even in extreme situations, shows how serious the Japanese are about it.
It’s full of interesting tidbits like this. One big surprise for me was that the birth control pill was outlawed in Japan until August 1999. It was only the record-breakingly quick approval of Viagra that shamed the overwhelmingly male medical institutions into approving the Pill. But many medical authorities still openly question its safety. Neumann wonders if:
The government purposely started rumors about the safety in the pill, because they realized that they could no longer prevent its approval through normal channels. They were afraid that if Japanese women started taking the Pill, they would stop having children completely.
Given the low Japanese birth rate, they might be right.
The book is a little odd, though. Typically, books in this genre follow a fairly predictable format. It goes something like this: “Hey, you, take a look at this weird thing! Isn’t it weird! Can you believe they do that here? Wacky, huh? But, you know, I love it here anyway!”.
This book has the first part in spades. All sorts of wackiness, oftentimes presented in a fairly harsh, ironic tone. But the “I love it here anyway” part is missing entirely. Even the photo on the cover of the book, a Japanese woman laughing with her eyes all scrunched up and her orthodontry-free teeth exposed, lacks sympathy.
The strangest thing is that the book has, according to the foreword, been translated into Japanese. If the tone wasn’t changed in translation, I can’t imagine that a Japanese person would read this book and not take offense.
It doesn’t seem to be available in English, but if you read German or Japanese, it’s definitely worth picking up.
Karaoke Revolution is a karaoke singalong game for the Playstation 2. Every 6 months or so, Konami releases a new volume of songs, so once you get tired of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M, you can move on to “Careless Whisper” by Wham!
Kind of silly, when you think about it. They should also offer a subscription service, where you can get new songs every month via your Internet connection. You could offer a monthly subscription for the real addicts and a daily fee for folks who only want access to the new songs when their friends come over.
It’s brilliant, I tell you! Someone should jump on this opportunity ASAP.
Almost directly across the street from our apartment is a restaurant called Shoumin. It’s an oden restaurant (more on oden here), but they have raw, grilled and fried food as well.
Since it’s both convenient and utterly delicious, we’ve been there quite a bit. Probably 10 times, all told. A few visits ago, I was there by myself, but the proprietor was very keen to confirm that I was, in fact, Patorikku-san and that my wife’s name was Yukari.
When we went to eat last night, they brought a bottle to our table. Potted and painted into the side of the bottle were our names, written in katakana.
In Japan, these are called keep bottles. Typically you buy a bottle of whisky, shouchu or other hard liqour, put your name on it and then leave it at the bar or restaurant for your next visit.
At Shoumin, they do it a bit differently. They give you the bottle and you can, if you want, fill it up with the beverage of your choice. You can also just take it home with you. We left ours there, empty for now, as a proud sign of our regularhood.
We’ll be back soon, though, maybe to fill it up with some of Yukari’s favorite, umeshu (plum wine) and to enjoy the incredible buri sashimi that is in season right now.