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August 29, 2005

Come on Big Easy!

One of the largest hurricanes to hit the US has just made landfall near New Orleans. Throughout the day in Asia, we were treated to endless replays on the news of doomsday scenarios for the city, but so far (fortunately!) it looks like the worst case won't play out.

I am hoping that New Orleans rides through the storm. It is the most genteel and fun of American cities and you will not find any other place like it. On a basic level, they really know how to throw parties down there.

Whenever I want to get my New Orleans fix in Japan, I go to one of my favourite coffee places, Cafe du Monde Japan. This is the same chain that is located in the French Quarter, known for its chicory coffee and pastries called beignets. I was lucky enough to have one near my apartment for awhile, but it did not catch on in Akasaka. But there are a number of them down in Yokohama and Kanagawa. If you ever down that way, you should stop by sometime.

I was foolish enough to turn on CNN to watch their coverage (we do not have much choice out here in Tokyo). If you want to really know what is happening, I would stick to the Internet. Unless you like to see news anchors dressed up in rain slickers, holding wind gauges, and commenting on how the hurricane is impacting what they can see 20 metres around their cameras. Their reporting is so bad...they should be ashamed of themselves.

Posted by Kirk at 09:47 PM | Comments (1)

August 28, 2005

One last Hayama Day

If you want to skip straight to the pictures, please access the photo album here and look at the album "Hayama 2"

We went to Hayama again on Saturday. As expected it was a really good time. I went down at noon, but that turned out to be two hours earlier than the next arrivals. It gave me time to get chairs and umbrellas, change into beach wear, and relax for a bit. See...doesn't this look nice:
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Yoko, Michika and John were the first to show up, and they were followed soon after by Tomoko, Nanako, Emma and Jeremy. Actually, the fog showed up first, which most people on the beach thought was strange, but having seen this in Hokkaido and Karuizawa for a better part of a week, I was not surprised at all. I had implied Kaz was the cause of this in Hokkaido, but fog at the beach when it is 30 degress is pretty solid evidence that I am the one at fault. Here is the evidence to prove it:
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Fortunately, Shiho and Chiaki arrived and the fog disappeared. (How did they do that?) Leigh, Carol, Kinuko and her new boyfriend also arrived to round out the group.

I will give you some of the highlights of our time on the beach:
* Shiho is always smiling - she is also a good swimmer (no pictures of that, sorry)
* Chiaki was also smiling a lot...she did not go swimming though, so I could get plenty of pictures of her
* Michika is always swimming - she grew up in Shonan, so this is all familiar to her
* John and I tried bodysurfing...that was fun!
* Tomoko and Nanako rented a air mattress and swam out to the floating markers. I tried to follow but the water was surprisingly cold once you got past the breaking waves.
* Leigh and Carol seemed to be talking a lot about work
* Emma and Jeremy read and napped
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We had to give all our beach kit back at 5pm, so we moved over to the Blue Moon for the evening's entertainment. We managed to get a table and 14 chairs, so that worked out OK. Here is a photo of the girls checking out the fancy bracelets they gave us for paying our cover charge. And again, we had a quality table. This is the sunset from our table...I am posting the best picture, taken by Yoko with her cell phone. Isn't this a great shot? She is a genius!
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Having our evening location sorted, a few of us walked down the beach. I love that. Sure enough, we ran into a group of people burying one of their friends (there is a picture in the album). This time it was sand (last month it was seaweed). If anyone can tell me why they do this, I would like to know!

We also were chastised by one of the police officers who told us not to take any pictures of him or the walls/trees of the Imperial summer home. He didn't confiscate any of our cameras, so maybe he was not too serious about it. Or maybe he was lazy.

Back at the Blue Moon, the music act was marginal, but the drinks were flowing more freely, and that is what was important. They did not do so well with the food, but that seemed less important as the night went on. This should give you a better idea.
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We saved the real excitement for the end. The bar closed at 1045pm, presumably leaving plenty of time to catch the last train at 1130pm. That is important...a taxi ride back to Tokyo would be hundreds of dollars (ten thousands of yen). Unfortunately, when we got to the raod, it took 5-10 minutes just to get the taxi company on the phone. And when we did, all they could promise is that they would do their best. Eventually, one taxi showed up, but we needed half us remained on the road by the beach. I kept thinking "ok, as long as it comes in the next five minutes, we will be OK". When the five minutes was up, I would think "ok...if it comes in the next two minutes.." and so on.

Anyway, with 15 minutes before the last train, the rest of us were able to get a taxi. And we made it to the station with a minute to spare...whew! On the left is Yoko on the train...she must be relieved that she was not stranded with me in Hayama! That's the rest of us on the right. I kept joking around about sleeping on the beach, but it seemed less funny the closer it got to 1130pm. Anyway - all is well that ends well. And we another great day at the beach.
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Posted by Kirk at 09:50 PM | Comments (0)

August 27, 2005

Karuizawa - very cool

And I mean cool! It was 16 degrees on Thursday. And rainy. And foggy. I had hoped to go hiking (walking) for a little while, but the weather precluded that. I did walk around the place and buy a few things (jam, sausage), so it was not too bad.

Probably the biggest mistake I made was going on Thursday (rain in Tokyo) and not Friday (blindingly hot in Tokyo). Oh well, timing was never one of my strong points. The picture on the left is the view from Karuizawa Station. The one on the right is the entrance to the main shopping street.
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Karuizawa is one of the popular summer getaways from Tokyo. People have been heading to the mountains here for over one hundred years to escape the summer heat. The opening of the bullet train (shinkansen) and highway for the 1964 Olympics helped make it more accessible.

There is plenty to do (when it is not raining). Tennis, golf, hiking, and, of course, shopping. Most everything is on the northern side of the station, but there is an outlet mall on the south side that is impressively big. I did not take any pictures of that, but I did get a few shots in town - on the top left is an example of how international the stores are (sort of) and, on the right you can see the happiest store in Karuizawa. They sell honey there. Woo hoo. The bottom pictures are taken on the shopping street: a path to a shrine and the lack of crowds.
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It was a nice place to spend the day, but I would recommend you go when it is not raining. I was bored after a few hours. The train was nice, though.

Posted by Kirk at 09:04 AM | Comments (0)

Thanks again!

I noticed the site has just hit 2,000 visits this morning. Thanks to everyone who keeps reading!

Posted by Kirk at 08:10 AM | Comments (1)

August 25, 2005

Another damn typhoon

I remember being at a loss for things to write about a few weeks ago, but maybe I should have been thankful. Between the earthquakes and the typhoons, I have plenty of things to go on about. The second typhoon of the season to hit Tokyo is expected tonight. This seems to be worse than the one we had last month, but that would not be too difficult. In any case, I am trying to figure out how to navigate my evening plans with a major storm bearing in. Should be interesting.

I cannot seem to get rid of this bad weather!

Posted by Kirk at 07:02 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2005

A quick trip to shitamachi

I made my return to shitamachi today. I started in Ginza with the intention of shopping, but I am not really good at that and my heart certainly wasn't into it. Actually, I think I just needed to get out of the apartment for awhile. Once I realised the futility of my being in one of the world's best-known shopping districts with no intention of buying anything, I moved on.

y 002.jpgIn fact, I decided I would go to one of my favourite little shops - a rice cracker (senbei) stand in Sendagi (that is it on the left). I am not some senbei expert or anything, so maybe there are far better places to go. But these senbei are square instead of round, and the green tea/sugar/seaweed toppings are really tasty. And it is easy to find.

After that, I walked up to Yanaka Ginza Street to take a look around. The first time I was there, we went to a fantastic coffee shop that had just opened. The second time I went I could not find it, but I figured I was just lazy. This was the third time...I am pretty sure it is already gone. That was too bad, because I really wanted a coffee. This is the entrance to Yanaka Ginza street from the Yanaka side. It is quite small, actually. And the picture in the right is the shop that sells the most delicious lunch boxes (bento) in Yanaka. At least that is what they say.
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The only sad thing is that it looks like I missed the neighborhood festival this year. If this picture is any indication, they have already had a fantastically good party. And the picture on the right is for Tomoko (are you reading this?). It says "Red Eye"...I do not know if this is a bar or not, but its also the name of one of the world's most awful drinks, namely beer and tomato juice. And Tomoko likes those for some reason.
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I put a few pictures in the photo album "Tokyo"

Posted by Kirk at 02:32 PM | Comments (3)

Tasogare Seibei

I have been taking it easy since I got back from Hokkaido. I am still on this crazy schedule of going to sleep before midnight and waking up before 7am...maybe that is what I should do all of the time?

It rained last night, and as I had nothing to do, I watched a DVD that I bought a few months ago but had never got around to opening. The movie is Tasogare Seibei (Twililght Samurai) and it was very very good! You should rent it...or let me know and I will lend you the DVD.

The movie is about a low-ranked samurai in the era just before the Meiji Restoration. It was directed by Yoji Yamada, who has been making movies for 30 years (or something like that), and stars Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa. It was nominated for an academy award in the US for best foreign language film and won 15 awards in Japan. I won't go into any more of the should watch it yourself.

Posted by Kirk at 09:23 AM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2005

Adventures in Japan's far north - part II

Here is what I was too tired to post is almost real time! I should tell you know that my original plan had been to leave Shiretoko and travel by train to Sapporo, through Hakodate and then down to Tokyo. With the uncertain weather, I opted to come straight back to Tokyo instead. So, there you go.

Hokkaido - Day four (Sunday 21 August 2005)
If you are reading through from the previous post, you may have noticed it was another early night, which made an early day possible. I woke up at 7am with nine hours sleep - that kind of schedule is either super healthy or terribly bad because it is such a change from my usual habits. Anyway, we started with the best breakfast: salmon, crab miso soup, wakasagi, salad and seaweed. I do not know if I had mentioned before, but Rausu is the "home" of the seaweed they use to make dashi. So, I guess that makes it important.

As for travel, the mood was down as the forecast was for rain in the afternoon. With that in mind, we left as soon as possible to get in what we could. We started with a viewpoint above the town of Rausu. From there, you can see the largest of the contested Northern Islands . These are the ones the Russians came and took at the end of World War II. I will write about this more at some point. It is only 30km away, and needless to say, this is a big issue for the locals.

As with the previous day, it was foggy on the road to Shiretoko, but it cleared up some as we came down the mountain and we even saw a few deer. In Tokyo, this probably seems like a big deal and you can see we got very close, but the reality is there are deer everywhere in the park. After awhile, we did not bother stopping to watch when we saw one on the side of the road. By the way, these are Ezo Shika (Hokkaido Deer), but they are referred to as "Bambi".
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We met up with our first traffic jam in Hokkaido when we got to the park. We had not taken into account the small parking lots! Even though we arrived before 10am, we had a 20-30 minute wait before we could actually park.
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Once we had done that, we walked around the five lakes. These are fed by underground springs and stay at a constant level (no river feeds into them). Notably, there are bears in the area, so one cannot always hike the full route, but we were fortunate enough that everything was open. Kaz says they close it when someone reports a bear, there is always someone who gets a little extra during their walk - I was hoping it would not be us.

Actually, the whole scene was very funny. We set off at the same time as a tour bus group, so there were 40 people or so walking in a big group. It was crowded. We soon left them behind, however, as we walked farther in. It is an easy trail and nice to be in the woods away from civilisation. It was also very quiet (and relatively dry, so far).

After our walk, we went back to the main area. The air was getting misty, but no real rain. We pressed on down the road to the nature center, with another walk - this time to a viewpoint overlooking the ocean. As you can see the view was awesome! But the rain had finally arrived. It was nice to walk around anyway.
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With the rain, there was not much we could do. We caught a movie in “Dynavision” that showed all the beautiful scenes from the park that we could not see because of the inclement weather. I slept through half of it. From what I could see, the producers would fly a helicopter over a ridge and then point the camera down as they went over it. This was pretty dramatic and also induced a bit of vertigo. I am sure I will have one of those "falling" dreams now - that is exactly what it looked like.

cafefox05b.jpg We had planned to take a boat tour, but all the trips were cancelled. So, we went into Utoro and hung out for awhile. We found the coolest place - Cafe Fox. They do boat tours, but also have a cafe and "takeaway fish and chips". We settled in for a coffee and watched the rain come down. There were three girls working and they all seemed bored senseless. After we got our coffee, their work was finished. They turned on the DVD player, popped in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", and relaxed in front of the TV. We also watched for 45 minutes, but it was a bit cold (18 degrees again! and the cafe was open to the outside) so we decided to go to the hotel and check in. Cafe Fox was only the second place we saw with Internet access and the only one with Wi-Fi. And the coffee was good too. If you are in Utoro, this should be your central meeting point. It is in front of the "Godzilla Rock" by the port. You cannot miss it.

The last hotel "Hotel Shiretoko- Frontier Suite" gets mixed had everything, included the best and most relaxing outside bath I used during the trip and a remote control toy helicopter in the lounge. But dinner was a buffet only and not very good. Following our usual routine, we had dinner, a drink in the lobby and called it quits for the day. I was alseep by 9am...not sure if it was the hiking in the morning or the malaise of the afternoon.

Hokkaido - Day five (Monday 22 August 2005)
I was up at 5am for the second time during the trip...SCARY. What is wrong with me? I went down to the bath figuring it would be empty at that hour, but it was massively busy! I actually had to wait my turn. I had not counted on the early bus tours.

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That was pretty much it. There was nothing to do because it was raining, so our plans for the day were out the window. We decided it was best to leave Shiretoko early. Unfortunately, that meant we had to rush as the only available flight for Kaz was at 1030am. And I had to decide whether to press on to Sapporo or return to Tokyo. I opted for the latter and made a reservation. Kaz would change his ticket when we got to the airport. We stopped by this water fall site on the way, but only long enough to snap a few photos and get back in the car.

When we got to the airport, however, the flight was stand-by only, which meant Kaz would have to wait until 1pm or even 8pm to catch a flight back. I thought that was ironic, since I had been the one who expected to stay in Hokkaido longer. Fortunately, he was able to get a seat and avoid hours at the airport.

And that was the trip. By far, Kamuiwakka Falls and Iozan (Sulphur Mountain) were my favourites, with the walk to the coast from the Shiretoko Nature Center not far behind. But the fog and rain meant that I never saw much of the beautiful scenery that makes the area so popular.

Marumi Ryokan in Rausu was my favourite hotel - nice people and great food. And Cafe Fox was the best place to hang out. As i said before, any trip to Shiretoko should include these places.

One thing is certain - I need to get back to Shiretoko again. That was a great holiday.

Anyway, I am at home now, 10am on a Tuesday, and still on that weird holiday schedule (in bed by 11, up by 7). I think I will do a bit of shopping today and head over to Hakone or Karuizawa for a day trip tomorrow.

Posted by Kirk at 09:19 AM | Comments (2)

August 22, 2005

Adventures in Japan's far north

Hokkaido is Japan's northern island. I went with my colleague Kaz, who was making his third trip to the eastern part of the island. He mapped out an amazing itinerary that even wickedly bad weather could not detract from.

The main event was to see Shiretoko National Park, which was made a UNESCO world heritage site on 14 July, but we also visited some of the sites in central Hokkaido. By the way, in the Ainu language Shiretoko translates as "land's end" or "the end of the world". Coming from Tokyo, it certainly seemed appropriate.

This is also the "land of summer tour groups" - all the hotels are relatively the same: Japanese room with dinner and breakfast included, karaoke bar in the basement, and game room. Some were better than others, as you will see.

We had a typical Japanese holiday - except that we drove ourselves (actually Kaz drove as I do not have a Japanese license) instead of using a tour bus. For me, that meant two baths a day and only Japanese food. It was great.

Hokkaido - Day one (Thursday 18 August 2005)
After an uneventful plane flight, we arrived in Asahikawa. It looks like France to me…rolling hills, lavender, strange buildings. More importantly, it is cool…20-23 degress, no humidity. AWESOME

Kaz is an old hand at this part of the world so we went off and checked out a few places before going to our ryokan.
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We stayed in Biei (sounds like BA, as in the crap airline) and it is so beautiful here that the TV and commercial people come up here to film. One of the side effects is a tourism offshoot, which I will call the CM site. First off, the guide book had a number of places it recommends on the fact that a popular ‘80s TV show called Kitano Kuni (North Country) was shot there. We also went to “mild seven hills”, which is not planted with tobacco, as one might think, but edamame. That is the picture on the right, and I bet you could feed all of Ginza from this field!
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The hotel is nice (notice the downgrade from ryokan). The set dinner was very good, which helps, and the rotenburo (outside bath) was great. The inside bath leaves something to be desired, looking more like a prison bath than anything else (no drop the soap jokes please). There is also a fantastically cool omiyage shop, including melons (Y5,000), potatoes, onions, salmon (Y5,000) and crab (Y11,000) that you can send pre-packaged back home. I opted for the Hokkaido Milk Caramel candy (Y200), but was seriously tempted to send my assistant a crab (she asked for one…honest!...but I am cheap and did not send one).

The entertainment facilities are also worth mentioning – game room, ramen shop and “snack bar”, which was like some sort of Tokyo hostess bar/karaoke lounge, without any people in it. There was a Y1,000 cover charge, but drinks were Y300 each…so we still saved money.

The next day was the real start of the trip – for one, it was the longest drive of the trip at 200 miles – so we had an early night (1030pm).

Oh, forgot to mention – no Internet, which is why it is only now that you are reading this.

Hokkaido - Day two (Friday 19 August 2005)
Yikes! I was up at 530am. Must be the fresh country air. Or I am not used to all the quiet? We had a long drive, so we started early. After a quick breakfast (with bad coffee), we jumped in the car to start what would be 300km of driving.

s 053.jpg First up on the agenda was a photo museum, Takushinkan. Not quite what one would expect for a staring point, but the photographer Shinzo Maeda was an absolute genius with the lens and a local - the combination produce some fantastically nice pictures. After that, we popped over to a coffee shop and finally got the proper cup we had wanted at breakfast. Not worth mentioning except for the weird food they served and the great t-shirts they sold.

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Our first "nature" experience was to be Daisetsuzen (Big Snow Mountain), but when we got there it was starting to rain and there was little chance to see anything from the top. So we decided to press on. At the time, we did not realise this would become a theme of the trip, but it was one of the few times we let bad weather stand in our way. The tourist trap, I mean gift shops, at the bottom were nice anyway.

We headed off to Naitai Bokujo (dairy farm) for what is supposed to be a great view of the southeastern part of the island. s 059.jpg
As you can see, we were foiled again. Even worse, they had downgraded the food menu, so we had to settle for frankfurters and potato dumplings. We did eventually find a roadside ramen shop - this is when we discovered that a Hokkaido team had reached the semifinals of the annual high school baseball tournament (Koshien). We watched the start of the game, but soon more pressing matters, like outrunning the storm, took precendence.

We did our first hiking at Lake Onnetoh...there is a relatively easy 3km course that takes you to a waterfall. I snapped a few photos and we moved on to the end of the day's journey: Akanko Spa.

This was a pretty cool place, actually. Lake Akan was formed by the eruption of a volcano. It sounds cool until you see where the volcano is still venting. In fact, we visited this site down the street from our hotel where there is boiling mud and a sign warning you that you will boil yourself in the lake if you walk in there.
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Our hotel was a bit creepy, with a dodgy nightclub act in the basement bar (Y2,000 cover charge) and a Venus Fort-like lobby ceiling. But our room had a great view and there was an outside bath (rotenburo) on the roof that was pretty relaxing. We skipped the dodgy show and had a beer in the lobby while watching all the women shop in the souvenir store. I guess we looked pretty creepy ourselves sitting there drinking while wearing our yukata. Oh, I forgot to mention, we were the only ones who thought that was acceptable behavior for a Friday night. Asleep by 10pm...

Hokkaido - Day three (Saturday 20 August 2005)
This is when I first realised that Kaz had a problem. For some reason, where ever he goes in Hokkaido rain and fog follow. We managed to visit one viewpoint 10km from our hotel and have some sun, but that was the last we saw of it for the rest of the trip. s 083.jpg

Kaz said our first stop would be lovely Mashuko. When we got there, this is what I saw. That is when he told me that there was a popular song in Japan in the 70s or 80s called Kiri-no-Mashuko (foggy Mashuko). I can see why. That should have been a downer, but one of the highlights of the trip was next in the agenda: Sulphur Mountain (Iozan). This was such a vast change from what I expected! Yes, that is sulphur...the smell aside, it was great. For some reason, everyone there seemed to be having a great time, including me. We took a few pictures. That is Kaz with some boiling eggs (that is not where the smell comes from, but there were some savvy entrepreneurs there selling them anyway). Iozan also rates highly because they were selling Tantakatan shochu in the gift shop.
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We went next to Lake Kussharo to see the sand onsen (more beach-side volcanic thanks!) and the Ainu museum. The old man at the museum said he would take my picture in an authentic Ainu outfit. Considering how ridiculous I look in a yukata, I declined his offer.

The rain/fog was getting depressing and it did not improve at all as we headed to Shiretoko. By the time we reached Utoro (gateway to Shiretoko), it was nearly impossible to see more than a hundred metres. I was not so excited.

But then came the best part of the trip: Kamuiwaka Falls. I could never explain how cool this was (but I will try). is so foggy we could barely find the parking lot we need to take the bus. Then we had to travel 40 minutes by bus to get there. But it is all worth it because the water from Kamuiwaka Falls is from a hot spring. And you climb up the waterfall to get to a bath. These are the was still foggy, so it was very surreal.
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That finished off a pretty full day and we headed off to Rausu on the south coast of Shiretoko. We stayed at the Marumi Ryokan. It did not look like much, but it is an absolutely cool place. s 125.jpg
The dinner was excellent – one giant crab, one smaller one and a wide range of fresh seafood. I had whale sashimi for the first time, which is good for the entertainment value, but it was not really tasty. We shared a table with two older women – it looked like a mother and her daughter-in-law. The mother was an expert with crab and got us sorted. We ran into them a few more times touring ther next day- they were very nice and it made it seem liek a school holiday (except that my conversation was limited to "oh, hi, nice to see you again".

The inn is like a dormitory – there is not much to the rooms, for example. And the outside bath was not what you would get at a fancy place in one of the more travelled areas, but it was right over the beach (where they dry out the seaweed). It was absolutely relaxing and the best place we stayed on the trip. I hope I have the chance to visit again. If you ever go to Shiretoko, you really should stay here for a night.

We finished dinner by 8pm and there was not much else to do. We sat In the lobby with a few beers for awhile - the owner stopped by and chatted with Kaz for a bit, but I could only sip my beer and stare at the wall (that bad Japanese language issue again). Later, we walked up the street, which was completely empty. But it was only 17-18 degrees, which was awesome. Kaz was asleep by 9pm, but I stayed up for another hour reading and drinking a beer in the lobby. I was in bed by 10pm - not exactly the weekend schedule I am used to.

SIDE NOTE: The Hokkaido team won at Koshien for the second year in a row, which is very rare. That is all that everyone was talking about today. Good for them, and good for us that we were there when it happened.

I will write up the last day and a half later...stay tuned

Posted by Kirk at 06:39 PM | Comments (0)

August 21, 2005

Hokkaido we are here

We are in Hokkaido! This is the only Internet access i have seen and i left the UBS cable for my camera at home. Anyway, everything is great up here, but we have had terrible luck with the weather. Today we are going into Shiretoko. Last night, we stayed in Rausu at the Marumi Ryokan. Great place...I will write more about it later.

Posted by Kirk at 08:25 AM | Comments (0)

August 18, 2005

Finally...a bit of holiday

I am almost on my way...laundry is done, bags are packed (almost), and my mental changeover from work mode to play mode was finished days ago. I do have to spend a bit of time in the office tomorrow, but aside from organising my time away there is not much to do!

As you may remember, I am off to Hokkaido for a bit of touring, mostly with Kaz, but I will do a few days on my own and come back by train. Of course, there will be plenty of pictures etc.

The weather is the wild card...looks like there could be rain for the weekend, but the highs in Abashiri (25 degrees) are the lows for Tokyo now and Kushiro is even cooler. Might have to take a...what are those things called again...that's right: a jacket!

I am not sure what the Internet access situation is, so no promises on timely updates of the blog. It will all make it here eventually.

Posted by Kirk at 12:09 AM | Comments (2)

August 17, 2005

They rocked us!

We went to see the Queen/Ben Elton musical "We Will Rock You" at Shinjuku Koma Stadium last night. Simply put, it was awesome. I am usually not a big fan of musicals, but I liked this one. It might be that the music is well-known, which did help.

More importantly, the acting, singing, script etc were all first rate. It was a lot of fun - they put together an outrageous story and sprinkled in a lot of humour to show that they were not taking themselves too seriously. I hardly realised that three hours had gone by. Even more surprising was how much the audience got into the show. In my (admittedly limited) experience with concerts in Japan, the audience is extremely quiet, but not here.

Chihiro organised everything (thanks!) and Reiko and Ando-san joined us. After the show, we went to Hibiki in Shinjuku for a late dinner and more chat. Reiko was laughing at me because I ordered a lemon sour. She says it is a kids' drink. It was dark, so maybe she did not notice how young I am (ha ha - that would be the alcohol talking). As with the show, we completely lost track of the time and missed the last train. Fortunately, home was an easy taxi ride away. It was a very good night.

Anyway, the show ends on 24 August - if you want to have a fun night out, try to catch it in the next week. It is well worth it.

Posted by Kirk at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2005

Another earthquake!

Hey, this is starting to get a little old! There was another earthquake today. I was having lunch downstairs on the first floor (probably better than being at my desk on the 15F!) and the ground started rolling. It probably lasted about 20 seconds at most, but it seemed longer because all the hanging lamps continued to sway. And have you ever noticed that you feel like the ground is still shaking when it has stopped. Anyway, I would be happy if the quakes stopped for awhile.

It was a "4" on the shindo scale here, but the center was apparently in Miyagi near Sendai...that is pretty far away (300-400km) so they were probably shaking pretty good. It was strong enough to halt the elevators in our building temporarily and stop some train service (Yokosuka Line and the Shinkansen). There is a tsunami warning too, which is much scarier I think.

UPDATE: Bloomberg News reports the earthquake was a 7 on the richter scale and that there are numerous injuries in Sendai. NHK and Kyodo News are also reporting injuries, but there are no specifics as of yet. Here is an article from the Daily Mainichi with some pictures and initial comments.

Posted by Kirk at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

Does he eat between contests?

Remember the Japanese guy who keeps winning the hot dog eating contests on the Fourth of July in the US? Well, he is back in the news, this time as a champion dumpling eater in Hong Kong.

He ate 83 dumplings to hold off his local amatuer challenger, despite this being his first dumpling contest. There was actually one more contest (pork buns), but I did not see if he had won that one too.

I wonder if he ever eats between contests. He only weighs 65kg, so there must be some type of weight management system. Anyway, I suppose if you have a talent for something you should exploit it.

UPDATE: he DID win the pork bun contest yesterday, good for a 280,000 yen prize. That is certainly better than a year's supply of hot dogs.

Posted by Kirk at Posted by Kirk at 08:59 AM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2005

Nuala's excellent BBQ

Nuala had a barbecue on Saturday and it was great fun. It was also the (latest) introduction of her nieces (Clare and Anna) to Tokyo. They were surprisingly compatible with a bunch of almost middle-aged expats who think they are ten years younger.

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Anyway, the whole barbecue thing was touch and go for awhile as a rare August thunderstorm was the first guest to arrive on time. It was 520pm and the sky opened up. We had a spectacularly cool thunder and lightning display - at one point, it seemed less than a kilometre away! - before clearing up.

I should have written this up on Sunday instead of poking around my apartment doing nothing, so I will stick to the highlights instead:

* Zombie punch...Nuala's nieces mixed a couple of batches of this up. The first try looked like green pea soup, but tasted great. The second try looked more like punch, but...well, it also tasted good, but I think I had lowered my punch-tasting standards by then.
* Laura's BBQ sauce...she was mixing this up at one point and I was doing my typical "stand in the kitchen and mock people while not doing anything myself routine". I could not get enough of it later. The secret ingredient is apparently Chipotle Tabasco.
* Yoko's lasagna...I have been waiting to try this for weeks, and wondered if I ever would. Yoko left the office early on Friday and I was giving her a hard time, especially when she said she might not go to the BBQ. I feel bad now. Yoko also dressed for the occasion in a very nice kimono (see the picture on the right below!). I think she was slightly overheated because she kept drinking a lot (ha ha - I am joking!)
* Richard's music selection...because Nuala's nieces are apparently crap at selecting music.
* Floor dancing...Clare and Anna would have us believe that dancing in a sitting position actually happens. Seems to me I had not drank enough to need to dance sitting down (that's the actual dance on the left)

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Anyway, sometimes everything works together really well. There was good food, drink and nice people in ample measures. I had a great time.

Eventually, the rain came back (no thunder, unfortunately), which was our signal to move to the second party. So, most of us jumped into taxis and headed to Roppongi for part II of the evening. After a quick drink at Mogumbo's (not quite my scene), we popped next door to Castillo's. They must have known we were coming because they gave us the prime tables next to the fog machine and Coors beer vending machine.

Nuala thought this was a good opportunity to show everyone how I can spin around in circles until I pass out. As you can imagine that was exactly what I was hoping for.

The best part at Castillo was the 70s is a picture of him chatting up one of the birds with us (on the left) and of Clare taking his props and showing us some of her funky Warrington dance moves. Someday when she is married with children, she will pay me lots of money to remove this from the Internet. Until then, please enjoy!
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I know there was tons more that happened and worth writing about, but I was too lazy yesterday, and I am already late to work today. So, this will have to do.

Thanks for a great party Nuala!

For now, I have posted the pictures in the photo album under "Nuala's BBQ".

Posted by Kirk at 02:18 PM | Comments (2)

Kamiyacho Festival

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After work on Friday, I headed down to Kamiyacho for its annual Summer festival. This is not one of the big celebrations in Tokyo, but it does have some meaning because I used to work in the neighborhood. Suprisingly, in the five years our office was there, I never went. You could say I was making up for lost time.

I met Mark, a friend who still works in Kamiyacho, and the staff of the local Dotour Coffee Shop (that is them on the left). 11aug 017.jpg It was good to see them again - I probably went for coffee three times a day when I worked there and there were always so friendly.

As for the festival, it was hot (of course), but there was plenty of cheap beer (¥300!) to help regulate the temperature. And for entertainment, there was a band, although that is using the term loosely. Their first song was A-ha's "Take on me" and it only took 30 seconds to realise that was what they were playing.

The festival finished at 830pm, but we stayed around for a few more drinks at one of the Kamiyacho locals, Brussels Bar. Just when we were thinking of moving on, there was a terrific downpour - and that kept us drinking for another hour. If I was smart, I would have went home then.

But, we had decided early on to go to a jazz bar in Roppongi, so that is what we did. Unfortunately, at midnight, the music was finished for the day. In fact, the bar was empty. The did have plenty of scotch and shochu, however, which seemed reason enough to hang out for awhile. The bar is Jazz House Alfie, near Azabu Police Station, and it is a cool place to go. I recommend you try it when there is music, but if you go later, at least try the Tantakatan shochu. And drink plenty of water so you do not have a hangover the next morning.

Check out some pictures in the photo album under "Nightlife".

Posted by Kirk at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

August 12, 2005

Blog power 2: blogs a Japanese consumer favourite

I couldn't let this article slip by unnoticed. A Dentsu (Japan's largest ad agency) survey shows that blogs were the most popular consumer item selected in the first half of 2005.

More popular than Star Wars 6 (or is it 3?)
More popular than flat-screen TVs
More popular than electronically-automated houses

Hmmm...maybe this is not such big news after all. A few weeks ago, I read that the number of blogs globally had doubled in the last six months, although the number of consistently-updated blogs had not changed very much.

So, a lot of people sign up with good intentions and than let it go after awhile. That makes blogs sound like dieting or quitting smoking. Considering I should lose a few pounds and/or cut out the cigarettes, it makes me wonder how I have been able to keep this up.

Posted by Kirk at 08:18 AM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2005

Hey! I have put Hayama on the banner

That's Hayama's Isshiki Beach up on the banner. Let me know what you think about it.

Posted by Kirk at 09:26 PM | Comments (0)

Endless Summer

Do you remember how summer seemed to last forever when you were young? There was that sense of anticipation as you counted down the days until the end of the school year, knowing there were three months with no classes, homework, responsibility etc. And you really felt like you deserved it. I grew up in San Diego and everyday was perfect (well, that is how I remember it).

As you got older, time started to move faster. That three months did not seem like such a long time. And, inevitably, new reponsibilities started to claim that previously free time. And then one day, the magic of summer had gone. It was just another time of year when the weather was a bit nicer. You would look back and think "I wish it could be like it used to be".

I think I have managed to re-capture that endless feeling. Because it seems like it has been muggy and hot for months already. And there is no relief in sight. Ugh

Posted by Kirk at 09:05 AM | Comments (1)


I was going through my mail recently when an advertising circular caught my attention. What I noticed was the logo in 96-type font: WOFF. I think every foreigner in Japan has seen so many variations of inexplicable English that you tend to filter it out automatically. So, I ignored it and moved on.

A few days later, I was given a scratch for some sort of lottery game. If you did not win, you could turn it over and fill in the back with your name and address and send it in for a second try. The title was WCHANCE.

Seems W is making a comeback in Japan.

Or is there more to it? I went back to the first advertisement and read further. Below the logo it had a description of WOFF in Japanese: "double-ru" OFF. You do not really pronounce the last bit. So, WOFF means "double off". Mystery solved! And it is time to start putting this into daily usage. I will think of a few phrases after I have my WLATTE.

Posted by Kirk at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

August 09, 2005

Show us your spirit!

Sixty years ago today, at the end of World War II, the Russians took over the northern islands in Japan, which they have never given back. This is a terrible thing, of course, but not the sort of stuff I would usually mention here. However, it is also one of the anniversaries that the far-right Japanese nationalists really get worked up about.

Unfortunately, when that happens, they put down their fishing magazines, put on their camoflauge kit and drive around in customised black vans protesting. They certainly put the Japanese flair for technology to good use as the public address systems are the loudest I have ever heard. You may laugh at them, but there is little chance you can ignore them.

And I am sure that one of their goals is to drive the Russians absolutely ape-shit by passing by every ten-fifteen minutes all day with the martial music and nationalistic chants playing full-blast.

I know this because I work in one of the buildings they pass by to reach the Russian embassy. And I know how loud they are because I am on the 15th floor and it sounds like they are right here next to me. The first time they drove by was kind of funny, in a "aren't they wacky sort of way". The second, less so. The third, fourth...tenth time (and counting) - not so amusing anymore.

Why don’t the Russians just give them back? There is nothing there anyway. We could all get some peace and quiet and the far right nutcases can get back to their magazines. I will go down and get some pictures later...I am sure they will be back.

Makes the title of the post just below this kind of ironic, doesn't it?

Posted by Kirk at 02:31 PM | Comments (1)

Quiet week!

There is not too much to blog about this week. After the Hayama hijinks of last Saturday, everything seems so boring. My sister is having the Manson family reunion this week at her place. Since we are actually "half-siblings", I am not related to any of that branch, but all the same, I wish everyone the best.

It could have been a much busier week for her as we had planned to meet in San Diego from 10 August for a week, but the airfare at this time of year is ridiculously expensive and I thought it better to put it off for another time. I have some small regrets now as I feel like I would pay anything to not have to go to work this week. To be eating proper Mexican food and watching some baseball instead would be awesome. Oh well...Hokkaido is just a week away.

I will probably post more later...

Posted by Kirk at 07:57 AM | Comments (2)

August 07, 2005

Hayama Isshiki Beach - Yikes!


For more photos, click here and select the photo album "Hayama"

We went down to Hayama yesterday and it was exceptionally cool. I hope I can capture here just how good it was. I have been before at night (that is a story for next time) and I have heard this is the best beach in Shonan...we were not disappointed.

The beach itself is nice and it is not as crowded as some of the other places. Even better, it is much easier to get to than we thought it would be. Not that I will tell you how...if everyone knew we would have to find another place to hang out.

It was hot, but there was enough of a breeze to make it comfortable and the water was the perfect temperature for swimming. Throw in good friends, a few drinks, a great bar on the beach, and the Taiko "trance" band and it was pretty much a perfect day.

a2edit.JPGActually, Tim, Go and Go's parents were the ambitious ones and got down to the beach at 9am (!) so they had already staked out some prime beach real estate for the rest of us that arrived later. That is them on the left. Yoko and I were the next to arrive, just after 1pm. They were all enjoying a mid-day siesta, well deserved after four hours of sun and drinks, so we had a quick lunch at the Blue Moon, which was our home for the day. If you are going to Hayama, you should not miss this place.

After a while, the rest of the group finally showed up. That is Howie on the left...he came with Emi, but I did not catch her in this picture - you will see more of her later. On the right is Nuala, Leigh and Laura. I think they said something about having to work and/or run errands in the morning, but I was too busy playing to really make it out.

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Once everyone had arrived, we could get down to the serious work of not doing anything. As the tide was coming in, we had moved our chairs up the beach next to the bars. This made it easier to have a few drinks. We also swam a bit more and ran around a lot.

a5edit.JPGThis was definitely a good thing for Nuala...she has been feeling poorly recently and I think she needed the fresh beach air, soothing sounds of the waves, and a beer in her hand. There is something about the beach that influences your core being - you can relax like nowhere else. I would like to take credit for that observation, especially as I grew up going to the beach everyday, but Leigh is the one who pointed that out. In any case, it must be true: don't you think she is looking better already?

We spent an hour or two on the beach itself, drinking and chatting. This is what it looked like...the picture on the top left is Howie and Emi, that is Laura in the top right, on the bottom left, Leigh and Nuala are buying drinks. I told him he should stick to non-alcoholic drinks himself to keep his temper in check. I wonder why he is looking at me like that? That is Yoko on the bottom right - I told her that she would have to take a nap or she would be cranky later, but she wanted to stay up and play.

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After a while, I walked down the beach with Yoko and Emi. I like beach walking because I completely lose myself in the sights, sounds etc. Yoko says it is healthy...but maybe not healthy enough for me to offset all the drinks I was having. Ha ha - she is funny, isn't she? I was going to throw her in the water, but she says she could have her foot amputated if that happens, so I didn't.

b2edit.JPG On the way, we saw a group of Japanese guys covering their friend with seaweed and other assorted things that had washed up on the beach. He seemed to be so calm about it. When I took a picture, one of the guys who had been decorating his friend said this is "Japanese Jackass". Those in the US may be aware of a show on MTV where the star does stupid things like skateboarding off a cliff or setting himself on fire. The Japanese version we saw seems less damaging. Then again it was live. And here is the picture to prove it.

Anyway, we walked the full length of the beach and when we were on the other side, I made them take pictures of me on this rock (I had to wade over there