Monday, July 26, 2010

Incoherence.

I went and saw Inception on Friday night. We headed into one of the little Tokyo border-towns of Machida (This place is actually a good 20 minutes further from Tokyo than I am, but more north, so it counts as part of the metropolis). Yah, going to the movie theatre in Japan is highly expensive, but considering all of the praise I’d heard for this particular film, I decided it was worth it.

For those who have seen it (probably anyone reading this), the first bunch of dialog in the movie is in Japanese, with English subtitles. When buying our tickets online (a harrowing experience… why must all important text be rendered as images and thus untranslatable?) we had a choice between a dubbed film (presumably in Japanese) and a subtitled film (also presumably in Japanese). So when the movie started with people speaking Japanese I was like “Ughhhh wrong theatre…. Lame.” But of course that disappointment was shortlived, as soon Ken Watanabe appeared and all was well.

Upon mentioning Watanabe-san above, I originally launched into a long winded discussion comparing a country’s pride with their influence and cultural output on the world stage, but it was packed full of generalities and likely brimming with logical inconsistencies, so it’s gone now. Instead I’ll just say that Japanese people LOVE Ken Watanabe, as he is pretty much the only Japanese guy to ever “make it” in Hollywood. Good for you, Ken. You weren’t half bad in Inception either, and the movie itself was awesome.

Ooohhhhh god!

I definitely felt a bit of that “Matrix” feeling while watching it, and most everything, even including the romantic sub-plot, was remarkably well implemented and in most cases, difficult to accurately predict before the big reveal. The action scenes were – to me – not the meat of this movie (that honour likely belongs to the intellectual trickery and technophilosophy of it all), but even so, they were refreshing and fun to watch. The last heist movie I remember enjoying a lot was “Inside Man” with Clive Owen, but Inception’s reimaging of the whole heist idea totally blew it out of the water. Way to go Nolan, you did it again.

On Saturday I went to get my hair cut. This is the third (and last) time I’ll be getting it cut here, and unfortunately my increased command of the Japanese language kind of left me in a lurch. Before I had tried to explain what I wanted them to do, and then let them go nuts. The result was always somewhat passable, so I just said “mmkay” and left. This time, when they finished it wasn’t as short as I wanted, because I need it to still look somewhat respectable in a month’s time. So I was completely comfortable asking the guy if he could make it a bit shorter. And oh-em-gee, guys, it’s short now, as short as I ever remember my hair being. But my lovely girlfriend says it looks good, so who am I to argue. I probably look more like my brother now though. Boooo. (Hi Spence, no offense intended, you have great hair).

Spencer's hair. Oooo, captivating.

Wow my thoughts these days are tangential. I need to first explain something that happened when Arash and I went to Europe a couple years back (wow, has it been two years already?). In Paris and more generally in France, we became big fans of a patisserie chain called “Paul”. “Paul” was most definitely not the best France has to offer, but it was pretty good stuff, and they were all over the place. One pastry I particularly enjoyed was called the “Gourmandise” (for those without a background in French, this refers to the French word “gourmand” which means glutton. So I translate it as “Gluttony Surprise”). It was like a chocolate croissant, but it also had custard and ship cream and more chocolate on top. It weighed something like 500g. mmmmmmm. We ended up enjoying les gourmandises in Paris and Amsterdam (they tasted better in Amsterdam, I wonder why) and one particular afternoon in London. It was pouring rain and I was near the Tower of London at the pier, looking down the Thames at Tower Bridge. There, like an oasis in the desert, was a “Paul” with a sheltered awning. I got to have a gourmandise and a hot cup of cappuccino overlooking the Thames in pouring rain – in true Londoner fashion. Paul made my day that day, and I vowed to find him again. Cameron, Simon and I even made an intrepid attempt to recreate the gourmandise once during our weekly communal dinner nights down in Notre Dame. I must say, Cam, that those were pretty incredible.

Yummy.

Fast forward 2 years (minus a month) and I’m living near Aobadai in Japan. There are 4 directions leading away from Aobadai train station, south of my dormitory. To the north is a long road full of stores and restaurants that leads to my dorm, to the south is a mall and a McDonalds, to the west is a bunch of bars and a gourmet grocery store, to the east is an electronics superstore like Bestbuy. Past the mall and the McDonalds to the south happens to be where my super cheap barber shop is, so I’ve only gone so far in that direction twice. I must have noticed the sign on the far side of the road for “Paul”, but I thought nothing of it, as strange misused English words and names are a dime a dozen in this country. However this time as I walked to get my hair cut, fate placed me on the other side of the road, and instead of seeing the sign from afar, I looked right in the window and noticed some particularly umai-looking almond croissants. Some big, lumbering gear clicks in my head and I glance up at the sign: “Paul”, oh how I’ve missed you. I quickly glance around the display and there it is, the gourmandise. It takes an incredible force of will to not drool.

“Gurumandeisu mittsu, taekuautode onegaishimasuuuuuu”. (Three gourmandises, to go, if you please, my good sir).

I know I’m more excited than I should be, but man, what are the odds? Looks like Paul has expanded over the last few years outside of Europe to Japan, China, Dubai and... Florida.

Work is ending shortly, and I’m already planning to go there and get either their Camembert or Prosciutto panini sandwich as a pre-dinner treat. Oh I love Japan’s love affair with the French. It brings all the convenience of patisseries and boulangeries at every corner without the pompous superior attitude of the French. Oh wait.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Maki Weekend

Hi all - I don’t know whether I mentioned this before, but on Friday I had this brilliant idea that I could steal rice from the rice cooker in the cafeteria and make makisushi for myself in my room. For those living in the 3rd world or far from a fish-filled body of water, makisushi are sushi rolls, seaweed wrapped rice with raw fish and other assorted delicacies in the middle.

Anyway, I think I’ve complained enough about my living arrangements and you all know that I have no food preparation area or kitchen or really anything but a communal fridge and microwave in the cafeteria. (An amusing tangent about the microwave: its covered in buttons, but I’ve only ever pressed one. You see, when I first got here I wasn’t too proficient at reading, and during my first once-over of the buttons I immediately recognized only one word (コーヒー, coffee). And I’ve never bothered since to use any newfound reading skills, I still only press the coffee button no matter what I’m heating up. I HAVE A ROUTINE, OKAY, IT GETS ME THROUGH THE DAYS.)

Wow, anyway again. The reason I mention the lack of culinary space is that I really miss making my own food, mostly because I’m sick of 7-11 dinners and stew/sludge from the cafeteria, and also tired of going out to dine by my lonesome. So sushi is the obvious solution, as by definition it requires very little cooking, but the major hang up has been procuring rice. So that’s solved now through clever thievery and complete disregard for the people telling me not to do what I’m doing as I do it. They’re speaking in Japanese, I don’t understand that language, guys. Moving on.

Theres a fish market near my dormitory that’s pretty great and cheap, so I buy fish there, and there’s also a gourmet (read: expensive) Japanese grocery store that carries a rotating assortment of almost restaurant-like dishes like the awesome seared steak that I’ll get to in a moment. The regular 東急ストア (Tokyu Store) supermarket across the road from my dorm supplied all the regular supplies like のり (nori, seaweed sheets), すし酢 (Sushi su, vinegar), (tamago, egg omelet thing), 天くさ (tenkusa, the tempura flakes that make crispy sushi crispy) and of course わさび (wasabi). I should note that I don’t have a cutting board or a knife (other than my swiss army knife – yes I’ve been using that as my sole knife for 8 months, I also don’t have a fork or non-plastic spoons) so cutting the maki rolls into roll-pieces was not possible, I had to eat them as wonderful seaweed maki pitas.

I took pictures of all of my wonderful creations, but as I mentioned before, my SD card is corrupt as viewed by all computers I’ve tried but fine on the camera, and I want to get the pictures off so I haven’t wiped it yet, and I’m compounding the problem by continuing to take more. Help? So descriptions will have to suffice until I get the pictures:

My first attempt was a pretty standard salmon, crab, tamago, wasabi roll. This was good, but in my haste and hunger, I ended up putting like 200 g of fishy goodness in the middle of the roll, and it barely closed. Eating it was also quite difficult, but of course enjoyable. I’m not entirely sure whether the crab is real crab, as it was strangely inexpensive and conveniently removed from its shell. It tasted great though, and the salmon was top notch.

Then I mixed things up a bit by making a spicy crispy salmon roll. I don’t have spicy mayo, so I mixed up wasabi with the tenkasu flakes and added them to the salmon. I added wayyy too much wasabi and it almost killed me, but it was a pretty fantastic take two. Wasabi in Japan comes in a tube like toothpaste. Do I see toothpaste swapping hijinks in my future?

The next day I bought a nice big piece of tuna, and added to it everything I had left from the previous attempt; crispiness, some salmon, some crab, and tamago. This one was also packed full, but I just compensated by adding less rice. I really take the same attitude with sushi-making as I do with sandwich-making. The meat (or fish, or what-have-you) is the main event, so if you’re not going to add a hell of a lot, don’t make it at all. There’s nothing I dislike more than a sandwich with a single piece of shaved ham in it. Come on, at least half an inch or go home. So those pussy maki they sell at sushi places here (or in Canada for that matter) just don’t cut it.

Continuing my overloaded maki trend, I next made a roll with four (count’em, four) colossal tempura shrimp in the middle, lightly lathered with wasabi. Mmmm Mmmm good. Unfortunately here they have this bad habit of not taking off the skin/shell/legs of the shrimps when they deep fry them. They pull the same stunt in kakiage (which is an awesome food, to be saved for another blog entry, likely a short list of the things I enjoy in Japan). Also, note to self: fine avocado. Mmmmmm.

Now the pièce de résistance. At that gourmet food joint I mentioned above they had this seared “Kobe” tenderloin for sale. It’s a raw steak (Kobe steak is fantastical, but I seriously doubt this was Kobe, it wasn’t expensive enough) that’s just shoved under a flame for long enough to burn off any surface bacteria and put a layer of seared flesh on the outside. It’s sliced just like sashimi and is a wonder to behold. It comes with this little baggy of yummy sauce that I don’t know the name of. I mixed in some wasabi with the sauce and poured it on the whole thing of beef packed in a single roll. In a word; God-like, ladies and gentlemen. Tasty. If you try it yourself make sure the beef is okay to be eaten raw (any good cut should be technically) and make sure you go real easy on the rice, you don’t want to overload the goodness in the middle (remember, main attraction).

Dessert: Yah, I decided to try a dessert maki. To make cooked rice ready to be sushi rice, you add this stuff called sushi su (sushi vinegar) that is pretty much just rice vinegar with sugar. So I sweetened up some sushi su with a lot of honey, and added that to the rice instead to make super sweet sushi rice. Then I put strawberries, banana, Nutella and flaky crispiness in the middle. The nori is salty (its seaweed, guys) and I originally thought it might be reminiscent of those sweet-and-salty granola bars, but its really not. It was still really good. But I used the last of my honey :(.

Wow, that would have been a lot better with pictures. Sorry guys, I’ll do what I can. Peace out.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the depths of winter.

It must be admitted that much of the time I'm not in the happiest state of mind these days. In the midst of everything however, some moments can still induce an undeniable feeling of rapture. It can creep up on you, like all the best things, when you least expect it. Completely against your bitter and stubborn will, a proffered smile, a free playing child or colours in a murky twilight can seize you and carry you away for the briefest of moments. How can the world still be so beautiful? Because it is. Are you paying attention?

The person to whom I most want to tell this also happens to be the most rapture-inducing person I know. My invincible summer.

Mostly unrelated. I don't recommend the stairs.

A disappointment and an appointment. (Wait no that's wrong...)

Yesterday was "International Check Out My Sweet Shirt, And Then Talk To Me Because I'm Awesome Day" organized by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. Some of you know I happen to be a proud owner of the "Time Traveler's Essentials" T-shirt also made by the intrepid Mr. North. So I sojourned out to Tokyo (-ish, technically Machida, but its still in the Tokyo Metropolis Special Administrative Zone). The goal of said day was to encounter other people wearing Dinosaur Comics T-shirts, start talking and hope that "sexy-times" (or more likely, friendly-times) ensue. I don't suppose anyone will be surprised to hear that no friendly-times occurred for me, but if English words on a t-shirt are an indicator of coolness here in Nippon, then I must have been by far the coolest person in Minami-Machida at the time.

Time Traveler's Essentials Shirt. Including basics of flight, electricity, stellar/solar geoposition, antibiotics, agriculture, etc. LOTS OF ENGLISH LOLZ.

I had a bit of a late night last night (understatement of the century) so my rhythm is a bit off today. I woke up and had a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich for breakfast around 3:30pm. I used the last of my 1kg peanut Butter and honey, now either faced with either buying brown and golden gold here for a small fortune, or a month of no spready goodness. Now I'm at my old haunt, Tully's Coffee near my dormitory having just finished a light lunch of Triple Cheese Focaccia (トリプルチーズフォカチャ、lol) and something called a "Ballpark Hotdog" which is a classy café fare of hot dog with cheese and curry on panini bread.

I ordered my usual Hiyashi Americano, but today the coffee making girl left a little note on my cup.

Grazie? How nice of you. I'm not Italian, but I appreciate the gesture. Prego, prego ma bellissima barista! (Yah, I know I need to cut my hair. I'm waiting because I need to look presentable for my Korea expedition, but don't want to cut it too short now or cut it again later)

Thanks, barista-girl. Sure, you probably write "Grazie" on every cup, but I still smiled when I read it. Like I've said before, its always the small pleasures and smiles that make the days here a little bit easier. Also, across and to the left of me is a J-girl decked out in full baby-blue French maid outfit, just doing homework and texting on her matching iPhone in the coffee shop. Oh Japan, I'm not going to miss you at all. I'd like to get a picture, but all I've got is a webcam and the "flash" isn't turn-off-able, so I would probably be noticed.

I feel like everyone has seen and marvelled at Nolan's new movie (Inception) in the last couple days. Unfortunately we get things a little bit late over in this area of the world, and opening night is this Friday. I'll be going with Arianna and Yoichi that night, unfortunately stupid Japanese movie tickets are like 20 bucks (and thats not for that new-fangled IMAX stuff). Thankfully Hollywood movies are all available subtitled with Japanese but with the original English audio track intact. I'm looking forward to it.

In other news this is a long weekend! Which means a sleep in tomorrow morning, along with a 4 day workweek next week. Small mercies.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Who shat in your Cherrios, Izawa-san?

God damn it Izawa-san. (This is the Izawa-san of first-blog-entry-in-Japan fame, who’s introduction to me consisted of “fucking stupid gaijins, causing nothing but trouble and heartache”.

He’s the “landlord” or manager of my dormitory. What a poor and unfortunate soul, he has to live here, forever. Anyway, today when I was on my way out (at least 5 minutes late, but what I now consider “on time”), he stops me. He starts by saying “Money money money, now now now”. Then goes on to say how utilities money is due today, and I need to pay now. Excuse me, Izawa-san, but if you give me a bill with a due date of July 6th, then by god I will pay it on July 6th, don’t you worry. But don’t bother me about it until I’m late. I know Japanese people probably apologize profusely if they don’t pay it at the first available opportunity, but where I come from a due date is a perfectly acceptable day to pay. Anyway, I stand there and take his rambling, which eventually turns into a speech about how I’m always the last to leave for work, and I must be late every day. Stop judging me, Izawa-san. Then it becomes a soliloquy on how I never sort my garbage properly. No one really ever explained it to me, Izawa-san, and I’m sorry I haven’t the heart to track down paper bags and collapse all boxes and paper and wrap them in twine like everyone else does.

Through all this I’m just standing and looking stupid at him. Yes, Izawa-san, I’m more than willing to play the ignorant-gaijin-who-doesn’t-understand-a-single-word-you’re spewing card. At the end of his long winded ramble (“Wakaru?”, come on Izawa-san, dignify me with using at least a somewhat polite verb, okay?), now maybe 8 minutes late, I smile and say in my worst Japanese; “Once again, please?”. At this he scowls. I laugh and say “I’ll pay it after work, I don’t have money right now.” He doesn’t believe this, as not having 60 bucks in your wallet is a capital crime in Japan. I’m sorry I’m still not adapted to cash based society, and I never take more than $50 or maximum $100 out of the bank at a time. I end up just putting on my shoes and saying in my best Japanese “I haven’t understood a single word you’ve said, but I’ll pay my utilities after work today. Today is the due date, this is okay, right?”.

He gives up, but not after he puts me in a bad mood for the day.

God, after all this time all the little things can still bother the hell out of me. As unfriendly and bad-international-relations-and-gaijin-reputation inducing this is, I'm glad I'm living up to Izawa-san's idea of a gaijin boarder. Wow, I'm bitter. I had to get that off my chest.

"Oh my god Blake, its still moving!"

Canada day celebrations were a hit. We headed to Hon-atsugi, the stomping grounds of the Atsugi-NTT-Canadians, a place much more metropolitan than I had expected, considering how dreary and po-dunk the next stop over on the Odakyu (Aikoishida) is. Anyway the place was shabu shabu tabehodai nomihodai, and we took advantage of the former with lots of meat eating (I didn’t have a single vegetable, so there, Arianna. I didn’t even eat the ones you put on my plate, unless they happened to become attached to my meat. An unfortunate reality, when sauce is involved.) and the latter with lots of rather gay drinks following the first few rounds of beers. There was a two hour limit, and I was so busy gorging/talking/not listening that I didn’t catch it when the waiter came by and told us it was the last order. So though I could have done another platter of meat, I was forced not to.

Afterwards, due to a series of unfortunate events, I didn’t end up getting to sleep until after 6am, a scant hour or so before I usually rise for work.

Friday was a semisomia-filled workday, punctuated by Red Bulls.

Saturday evening was blowfish (fugu, ふぐ) night, and we went to one of the cheaper fugu specializing places because we weren’t in the mood for a 10000円 meal. We didn’t even have to head into Tokyo, as there is a fugu chain restaurant right in Aobadai (my neighbourhood). The place was reasonably classy, and I was happy I chose to wear a collared shirt instead of the block-breaker Jesus one I had been sporting earlier in the day. (Side note here: You know the stereotypical Jesus head/face that everyone in the western world recognizes, and I have formed in block breaker blocks on a T-shirt? No one in Japan recognizes Jesus. Oh god, they’re all going to hell for gross ignorance.) There were a bunch of Fugu course sets ranging from about 4000円 to 8000円 ($40-80). What a bargain! They even included desert. So I got the cheapest one which had a few courses including fugu skin, fugu sashimi, fugu nabe (cook in boiling water/soup like fondue) and some fugu egg rice dish, along with desert (no fugu flavoured ice cream here).

My overall impression after the meal, agreed upon with Arianna-san, was “nonplussed”. Fugu just isn’t that good. Sure, theres the appeal that “1 in 20 bites means death! OMG”, but once you get past that its kinda just sub-par fish. The sashimi had the consistency of really, really old gummy bears, and even tasted like gummy bears, you know that background flavour that they all share whether they’re cherry or blue or green or whatever. The skin was nasty, I never really like eating raw fish skin, and this just sealed the deal for me. It has the consistency of rubber bands and tastes like a fish market smells at 5pm after it closes. The fugu nabe was an interesting idea, the table had one of those magnetic induction heaters in the middle which uses rapidly oscillating magnetic fields to induce eddy currents (and heat) in anything iron or steel put on top of it. So they had a basket with water proof paper lining, and a piece of steel in it. When the induction heater is turned on, only the steel heats, and the water boils. The waiter puts all the fugu pieces, vegetables and such in it, and it becomes fondue.

Heres the fun part, the pieces of fugu that they brought out to us for the fugu nabe were STILL MOVING. Yah, it blew my mind too. I managed to get a video of the floundering fin attempting to get away from the induction heater that meant certain death. The fugu nabe is not meant to be eaten raw, so unfortunately I didn’t have the pleasure of eating the still moving fish, but it was nice to know how fresh this fish was. They have them swimming around in an aquarium in the front of the place, so I guess I should have expected no less.

[I wanted to put a video of the moving fugu fin here, but my SD card is unreadable on my Macbook and my work laptop, but works fine on my camera. WTF? Ideas?]

As entertaining as the fugu nabe was, the pieces were 90% cartilage and so very difficult to eat. I always like egg rice bowls, so fugu flavour didn’t detract too much from that, and the matcha ice cream was great, as per usual in Japan.

All in all, considering how much delicious salmon/tuna/unagi sushi/sashimi I could have eaten for 4000円 (unlimited, effectively), it was not a good deal. Of course, now I have the story, and the wherewithal to refuse fugu as haughtily as possible when its next offered (likely never).

Sunday I headed out with Caoch, a guy from the English happy hour at work, he brought with him some of what I must call the most enlightened and (how racist is this going to sound? fuck it) gaijin-like Nipponese people I've yet encountered. Seriously good time, Caoch. We headed to the best Spanish restaurant in Tokyo (a tiny hole in the wall near Jiyugaoka station in Meguro), which is apparently a common destination for Miss Japan, the most beautiful girl in Japan. I didn't see her. But the tapas were great, and wine was great, and due to some pecuniary support from my man Caoch, it wasn't even too expensive.

An Irish pub nearby was the apres diner destination, which was nice and rustic feeling, with an American barkeep. I also made a point to check out some of the surrounding shopping and stuff, which is supposed to be world class for affordable little gifty/Japanese/student-budget stuff. I wasn't disappointed. Don't know if I mentioned this previously, but Jiyugaoka is consistently voted the best place to live in Tokyo, and based on my limited exploring, travels, and interactions there, I have to say I'd agree. I just typed "Not that I'd ever want to live in Tokyo, ever again" by Japan-hating default, but now I find myself saying that I could see myself in Tokyo, at least on a part time basis if the situation demanded it, as long as I had someone there with me. Thats right, Tokyo on a part time basis. My plan is to be absolutely loaded. Where to live the rest of the time, you ask? Well, Arash and I have already agreed that we're going to do a timeshare on a pad in Amsterdam when we're rich, so thats two places. I should start a list.