Feb 27, 2004

Sometimes a glue-like fluid

Say what?

What I'm translating is no medical text, but now and then a real winner like that pops up.

Okay, still working on Akihabaran toy and over-the-shoulder train photo requests. But the ski-trip shots I can produce easily. There weren't too many to choose from, since the weather up there wasn't photo-friendly.

These are: us on the lift, a yellow Rie skiing, and me goofing off


There's snowflakes in there!

Soy of the Day - dinner, soy sauce with wasabi for our kampachi (amberjack?) sashimi.

Feb 26, 2004

Learning Fun with Ambassador Baker

United States Embassy
Tokyo, Japan

It seems like a stuffy place. And well-protected, too. Trees are about the only thing visible from outside the concrete wall encircling the compound. But their website betrays a distinctively American sense of humor.

For example, the keep-em-guessing "false bottom" instructions for submitting immigrant visa petitions. Or this... on the Ambassador's page. If you click the "high-resolution image" link under his photo (beware! it's something like 8M), the result is merely bigger, and to compensate they've removed the right 2/3 of his face. You've gotta be able to laugh at yourself.

But the folks at the embassy are about education too. (Here's the ambassador with Bill Gates at a Tokyo elementary school.) I really hadn't spent much time on the site before today, but after catching up on the latest rumors, I think I have reason to hang out there more often. The "Issues in Focus" buttons should be especially handy for keeping in touch with current American opinion on, let's see... elections, Iraq, Mars, Human Trafficking...

Ah! Food Safety is a particularly attractive button, with a good home-cooked feel to it. My thought was "Japan - Raw fish, raw eggs, fermented beans... gotta protect those sensitive American tummies." But nope, it's mostly articles about pesticides, biotech, and money for "BSE activities," whatever those are.

Then there's my favorite, "Facts: Depleted Uranium." I'm not even going to pretend I know anything about DU, but... what is this doing on the embassy website? Well, at least it ranks below "Mars Missions."

Soy of the Day - dinner, soy sauce in the broth for our soba.

Feb 25, 2004

"Knock knock"

I don't get it.
Why didn't someone tell me communication works all backwards in this country?

Our home phone rang earlier. This doesn't happen every day in a land where everybody conducts all their business by cell phone. Anyway, it was my former employer - okay, the temp agency - wondering if I could spare some days. This was several hours ago, so I'm fuzzy on the details. But the conversation went something like this:

"Who's there?"
"Your former employer."
"Your former employer, who?"
"Your former employer the chemical company. You know, in the gray concrete tower? Well, listen... here's the deal. See, we were hoping to suck out your entire soul, but it appears we overlooked a smidge in the corner. Or maybe you've regenerated some. Whatever. Anyway, we saved your spot with the undersized chair. So are you interested?"
"Uh... not right now, thanks."

Okay, I'm really not that bitter. And actually, considering the alternative, it feels good to be wanted, employable. But I can't help but wonder what was going through their heads when I told them last June, and again in September, that I wasn't satisfied and wanted to resign. Their outward reaction was negligible. Now that I'm gone, however, they express interest. Whatever. And I thought I was passive-aggressive. I'm also avoidant, and escapist. Maybe that's why I'm here...

Wanna see another picture?

Fresh-plowed road in front of Rie's folks' place in Iiyama, with an average year's snowfall on either side. The stone wall to the right makes the total height about two and a half meters. Kona's in here too, for scale. About five minutes after I took this, the roof on the left was being shoveled.

Feb 23, 2004

Lean Postings

I almost forgot to feed this thing. With my book 1 deadline fast approaching, and Rie's final CCNP exam just a week or so away, things are kind of hectic in Nerimaland. And you know... I've come to realize that not posting can be nearly as addictive as posting. Nevertheless, I'll try to hurl something into the maw every day or two.

But for now, we're short on blog-worthy material. How about a diversion...? iDisk has loaned us some space, so a picture of our dog Kona should be visible below (providing the public folder truly is). This was taken a few weeks back during our stay in Nagano. Kona was in her element.
Click on the pic for a full-size version.

Now that we've got a place to upload to, I hope to run a photo every day. Requests are welcome.

Soy of the Day - dinner, hiyayakko.
forgotten Soys of the Day -
 23.02.2004 - dinner, miso soup with green onion and nameko (slimy mushrooms).
 20.02.2004 - dinner, hiyayakko - one block of tofu cut in large cubes, topped with grated ginger and minced leek, with a drizzling of soy sauce and sesame oil.

Feb 19, 2004

Echsplicit Lyrichs

I didn't check the temperature today, but the kiddies were out in shorts. In February? Crazy children. But I do believe they are our future.

On a lighter note:

How many of you were aware that Mozart composed a vocal tune titled "Leck Mich im Arsch"?

We learned this last night while watching Trivia-no Izumi* (The Fountain of Trivia), one of our favorite weekly TV shows.

My German is a little rusty, but from what I could gather of the Japanese explanation, this song is a tad on the ribald side. The music historian serving as the program's expert was great - he bashfully acknowledged that perhaps Mr. Mozart "did indeed want to be licked." I also found a website yesterday - it's since vanished from Googleland - that mentioned a letter in which Mozart wrote something like "the patricians may all lick my a--." Will we ever learn the truth?

The trivia on this show often draws heavily from episodes of old Japanese TV programs I've never seen, so I'm quite pleased when they sample some good ol' bawdy Western culture. Or harass former Olympian Ben Johnson into humiliating himself again. Either one.

Oh, and they take viewer submissions. So if anyone has any good ideas, hit me with a comment.

*(If you clicked the link and were wondering, the "huh?" they refer to is more like a "heeee" (pronounced as an extended "hay"). This is a typical Japanese expression of incredulity, or something like the Johnny Carson "I did not know that." It's the show's unit. It's funny. And half the cell phones in the country are now set to ring "heeee.")

Soy of the Day - dinner, was gonna be deep-fried tofu in udon, but the deep-fried tofu had gone rancid on us. tofu will go rancid in a few days, and apparently so will its fried cousin.

Feb 17, 2004

Old friend, new blog

Safety Neal has a fireside. Check it out.

His first post makes me crave new wheels - two of 'em.

His second post reinforces my desire for said new wheels.

Soy of the Day - dinner, tofu salad. tofu, sliced in squares, on a bed of shredded daikon and red onion.

Listen... hearing nothing

Today I stayed inside working most of the day, too. I heard the same sounds as yesterday, minus the oil truck and plus a thrift shop truck.

Because we live in Nerima-ku toward the outside of Tokyo's 23 wards, our neighborhood is a relatively quiet area of residences and small businesses between one downtown to the east and the cities of Tokyo to the west. Naturally, we're insulated from certain city noises.

Here are some sounds I didn't hear the past few days:

Kogal - One of Japan's weirder exports. This started out as just a high school girl thing, but turned into a phenomenon. While the boom may be over, they're still out there, trust me. Using their outdoor voices indoors, loitering, and doing whatever else good kogals do. This guy offers an amusing, if somewhat whitebread, mistaken and naive description of Japanese youth culture, including the kogal.

Sound Trucks - seems to be the best overall description for these beasts. They tend to belong to, but are not limited to, right-wing organizations. (Stores sometimes use them to announce grand openings, and election time really brings the noize.) As you can see from these wallpaper-size pics, most of them have two or three top-mounted mega-loudspeakers both in front and back. Then what do they do? Drive around town blaring anthems and slogans at inhumane decibel levels. The Ministry of the Environment has recognized them as a social problem and, in typical Japanese fashion, recommended that "measures be taken." But as you can see in the Noise Regulation Law, two articles related to traffic noise have been deleted, and the penalties are a slap on the hand with a withered 1000-yen bill.

Missing Elderly Announcements - these we heard almost daily during our year in Shizuoka. Somebody wanders away from a nursing home - say, a 78-year old man in brown slacks and a gray sweater - and the city would broadcast this information over a PA system that looks like the tornado sirens back in Nebraska. First time I heard one of these I had no idea what they were saying. Huh? North Korea lobbed something else up? Foreigner curfew? Nope. Just return old Jiro if you find him.

Elevator Girls - and other disembodied voices of commerce. Elevator girls may not be as common as they were during the Monet-soaked bubble heyday, but some places still employ them. Like my favorite Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. What do they do? Welcome visitors to the elevator, read off the product offerings on each floor, and bow 2,500 times a day. Stores that can't afford a real elevator girl, or entry way girl, or whatnot, use the "Welcome to our store/bus/restaurant/etc." voice recordings found elsewhere throughout Japan.

Cicadas - because they come out to play in the summer. There're lots of different kinds, too... but they're all loud.

For more on sounds I may or may not be hearing, please read "Noisiest Nation in the World?"

Soy of the Day - a triple-dose today. dinner. miso soup with fried tofu. lunchtime. miso soup with mochi and thin-sliced leek, topped with kaiware daikon (daikon radish sprouts).

Feb 16, 2004


Today I stayed inside working all day, leaving the apartment only to walk Kona and meet Rie at the station.

Among the sounds I could hear outside were:

Crows - "big" and "loud" do not begin to describe these creatures (very short story, slightly longer story). They're twice the size of their country cousins, have more sturdy beaks, and seem to be studying our behavior. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for some three year old Tokyo crow pics. The fifth poster down here is the city's attempt to scare people into waiting until trash day to throw out organic waste.

Schoolchildren - much less problematic than the crows. In fact, Japan wishes she had more of these little yellow-capped critters. Okay, so they don't all wear yellow caps. Some wear red, or blue, or a limited number of other uniform colors.

Heating Oil Delivery Truck - comes around sporadically during the cold months. A spooky electronic bell rendition of "It's a Small World" or a random Beatles tune warns of its approach, so you can run outside with your 20L tank and have it filled at doorstep rather than dragging it up to the filling station. The truck in our neighborhood looks kinda like this. This winter we started using an oil-burning stove for heat, so we consider ourselves lucky when we're home to catch the spooky bells begin a-pealing.

Fire Prevention Stick-Beating Neighborhood Patrol Guys - what would this be in English? They're like a volunteer fire department, only they don't fight fires. And the job isn't so much volunteer as it a rotation among members of the community association. Anyway, they walk around and clank two thick wooden dowels together to make a sharp noise that - somehow - reminds people to turn off their kerosene stoves and kotatsu. (What's a kotatsu? pic, story by a gaijin)

Coming up tomorrow: what I didn't hear.

Feb 14, 2004

Japanese fast-food chain wants beef injection

Scandalous! But true.

I only mention this in response to comments received on a previous post, in which I implied that BSE had somehow contributed to my eating less meat. Because it's not only me.

You folks in America may continue to gleefully chow down on grass-fed freedom burgers, taking comfort in the knowledge that Canada fed the guilty cow. But apparently Japan sees things differently.

A ban on US beef went into effect late in 2003, prompting Yoshinoya and other specialty gyudon - or beef bowl - restaurants to revise their menus drastically. Yoshinoya, which uses US beef for 99 percent of its domestic needs, added to its lineup pork, chicken, salmon, and curry dishes in anticipation that the ban would force them to suspend gyudon sales in February or March.

Sure enough, three days ago Yoshinoya took gyudon off the menu at all of its domestic chains.

Okay, so I'm not a Yoshinoya regular. But somebody around here obviously takes the BSE scare seriously.

Feb 12, 2004

More to follow this evening (JST), including a riveting new "soy of the day" feature!

But for now, I just wanted to brag. Yesterday's mail brought the results of the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam, Level 1 (the highest) that I took in December. I passed!

Supposedly this comes with a variety of nifty perks, but my benefits card wasn't included in the envelope. Until then, I keep ordering from the Engish menu.

Feb 11, 2004

Chronicles of Nerima, vol.1

Just to give you an idea of the life we lead here, a few hours ago Rie was strutting around the apartment - hair up in a Cindy Lou Who topknot - singing "urethra, ureter, urethra, ureter" like it was a showtune. Gotta love a good showtune.

Now maybe I owe it to my wife to explain where the song came from. It's mostly my doing, after all. (The topknot, however, is her responsiblity. She called me a "trash Nazi" earlier, and I'm not ready to forgive her.)

Making up awful songs in kitschy broadway style is a bad habit of mine... always has been. But I've turned it to my advantage recently as a language-learning tool. It may not be my only method, but it's the one I've probably managed to annoy Rie with the most.

My first method, aside from the fancy classroom book-larnin', was to carry a small electronic dictionary with me everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I would also attempt to fix every broken-down appliance with a hammer, and my meals consisted of stew and cottage cheese - morning, noon and night. Seriously, I was lucky at this point if I could separate a word from the barrage of spoken Japanese long enough to look it up.

My next obession was kanji. I toted around a vertical-lined notebook and practiced writing kanji in all my spare moments. Then a language teacher mentioned a good way for learning to speak naturally is to find a favorite character on TV and mimic their speech patterns. Not to miss out on the fun, I found three or four comedians that I'm fond of and imitate them regularly.

Rie enjoys my impersonations almost as much as my songs, which are my latest method for learning vocabulary. Working from the "use a word three times and it's yours" principle, I abuse countless words and phrases by rhyming them in ways not fit for human ears. But I get my three times in.

Anyway, today in my translation work I ran across the Japanese words for urethra and ureter. Rie was handy, so I asked her the difference. Her response was the sort of "why don't you look them up yourself?" that implied she didn't know either. So I pulled the Japanese-English dictionary off the dictionary shelf, and we shared a learning experience.

Then I went back to my translation, and she did her best to show me how aggravating a showtune can be.

Feb 10, 2004

It's opposite day...

... and I'm too tired and lazy to come up with something of my own. Instead, I'll just step back and let the irony speak for itself. This is something I clipped from a speech in Vital Speeches, which got passed around at my former place of employment.

I don't remember the occasion, but here's George W. Bush on successful societies:

There are, however, essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture. Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military - so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selecting applying - selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions - for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media... They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women. And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people...

I'm assuming he read this off with a straight face.

Feb 9, 2004

dailysoy on the slopes

Okay, so it's been a few days.

Rie and I headed up to her folks' place in Nagano for the weekend, hoping to find our ski legs one last time before the season ends. We usually stay close to Iiyama - there's a ski area just five minutes from their house - but since it was our third trip this winter, we decided to venture a little farther, to Shiga Kogen. I had been there with some other gaijin students several years ago, and since it's only an hour away from Iiyama I assumed Rie had too. Nope.

Not that it mattered. The place was huge, and we ended up riding a gondola to an area new to both of us. And the snow was great. I'm not a very experienced skier, but I think this stuff was the closest I've seen to the legendary "powder, packed powder" I remember hearing about as a kid on the radio ski condition reports. Never understood what that meant, or if it was even supposed to be good. It is.

And since it snowed the whole time we were there, we had a constant supply of fresh powder. So the skiing was fantastic, even if the air temperature wasn't. Next time we're buying full day passes instead of half-day, and we'll take scarves and masks and portable heaters.

Or we could go to one of these places.

The silly thing is, I almost enjoyed driving the rental car we took from Tokyo as much as I enjoyed skiing.

We don't own a car - The cost of fuel, parking and mandatory annual maintenance makes it impractical for us - so we naturally don't drive very much. Especially on the highways, which aren't free or even cheap. In fact, they're downright expensive. Of the four hours it took us from our home in Nerima, Tokyo to Rie's parents' place in Nagano, three hours were highway driving. Our toll? Over 5000 yen. So, at 107 to the dollar... over $45 anyway. Double that for a round trip, and that's about half what it cost to rent the car. You get the point.

But driving on the highway here is fun. Wouldn't want to pull an 8-hour shift, but 3 hours is about right. First thing, there's no such thing on this tiny rock as highway hypnosis - no road is straight enough for long enough. Secondly, once you get over the terror of being squeezed into a lane just slightly wider than the car you're driving, and can suppress the urge to force more distance between you and whoever's next to you, the sheer proximity to the other traffic can be exhilarating. And thirdly its... okay, so maybe it's not that great. But everything is backwards. Steering wheel on the right, driving on the left. Red means go. Etc.

When we arrived home in Nerima and unloaded all our luggage, we still had a couple hours before the car was due back. So we did something that let me cross one more item off my "Things to do in Japan" list - we cruised into the middle of town. Our apartment is well outside the Yamanote train line that runs an elongated loop around the several downtown centers, so our trip into the city, around the Imperial Palace, and back out again consumed the remaining time neatly. And with lots of flashy neon signage.

Alright, it's late and for some reason CNN is on our TV. I'm growing more and more distracted by noisy faces like Dubya and Michael Jackson and Larry King. And questions like, "Why have I never liked Martha Stewart?" and "What was so bad about Janet Jackson's halftime breast that all Soledad's Grammy commentary is focusing on how 'clean' and 'un-naughty' the show was, and that Beyonce 'was a real class act,' without making any specific reference to any real or imaginary naughty shows in recent history?"

Was that my imagination, or did Jacko just strike a pose for the courthouse security guard?

Feb 4, 2004

You've got to know how to hand out the crayons and kick the doors down

From the Winning the Hearts and Minds Department:

"I like doing raids myself, because it gives us a chance to go after the bad guys."

dailysoy's daily soy, and other notable legumes

That's right, legumes. Beans. The musical fruit.
Where would this blog be without them?

In fact, I'm beginning to believe I could subsist entirely on a diet of rice, beans, yogurt, and garden-fresh veggies. Okay, on second thought, maybe that would get a little boring. But I find myself eating a lot less meat these days. And enjoying a greater variety of beans and bean products.

(If you ask me, Rie's partly to blame. She's not the world's most carnivorous being, and she has had a considerable amount of influence on my eating habits. I used to dread mushrooms, for instance, but nowadays I delight when we have a good selection in the fridge.)

Anyway, it brings me great pride to announce that today I consumed four different bean products. "Well, isn't that wonderful?" I can hear you all exclaim. And it is.

First, there were the leftovers of the little packet of toasted soybeans that I picked up last week in the Setsubun seasonal section at the grocery store. What's Setsubun? You can read about it here. I think I ate enough to account for the ages of Rie, Kona and I put together. And our apartment entry is sardine head-free, thank you very much.

Next was my lunch - the leftover curry lentil soup from yesterday's dinner. Yum. The lentils - a big bag o'beans - were an impulse purchase last weekend when we were buying other imported essentials in the Ameyoko shopping area in Ueno. Ahh, lentils... earthy lens-shaped goodness.

And finally, dinner. Rie, apparently unaware of my wanton ingestion of what's good for the heart, came home from work exhausted and craving Mabodofu. This deliciously spicy dish includes not one, but TWO different soybean products. Tofu gives Mabodofu its "dofu." And, at least in the Sichuan recipe (which is basically what we use), a kind of fermented black soybeans called touchi lend a characteristic... pungency? The overall effect is good though, trust me. Here's a recipe (with picture) that's similar to what a girl from Sichuan taught me several years ago.

So that's it. All told, two types of beans in four different shapes and colors.

Now there's a slight yet ominous rumbling in my tummy. And I need to go to bed.

But I'm sure I'll do it again. It was an absolute gas.

Feb 2, 2004

War is God's Way of Teaching Americans Geography -or- No Child Left Behind, Revisited

Violent debate continues over the origins of the "War is... geography" truism. Was it comedian/actor/producer/director Paul Rodriguez or writer/journalist/cynic Ambrose Bierce?

A mystery indeed. But that is not our concern today.

Today we are interested in its implications for the US budget. Now before you get all excited - or, conversely, too comfortable - don't expect much stinging wit and insightful political and economic commentary here... I'll leave that to my more persuasive friends. Nope, what I'm offering today is just a few numbers. Food for thought, as they say. Shall we begin?

"American Defense Budget Sees Big Increase in 2005," or words to that effect, was a subheader on the Yomiuri paper that stared up at my groggy head from the doorstep this morning. This under a headline about 2004 bringing the US' worst fiscal deficit ever.

What's that? Increase in defense spending? I thought we just injected another $80 billion for our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. How much more could our brave fighting men need?

Apparently 7% more, for that's the number that's floating around the Web these days.

Okay, now that's a nice single-digit number. Conservative. If you're gonna increase spending in these crazy times. "But up 7% from WHAT to WHAT?" I wonder. And is that really EVERYTHING?

The answer to the second question appears to be NO. This article says that the nearly $402 billion defense budget for fiscal 2005 is needed for "a raft of costly weapons and programs... but would not include costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan." Instead, the boys are expected to ask for another $50 billion later in the year to support those two theatres.

But I digress. We were talking about the 2005 budget here, right? Not those teensy-weensy numbers that get tacked on later.

Didn't the article also mention Department of Energy spending that would also be used for defense programs? This is so confusing.

The actual numbers, available in downloadable bite-sized PDF budget chunks on the Government Printing Office website, aren't much clearer to your average joe. Especially since an overhaul of the budget layout around 2003 saw the introduction of new departments (Homeland Security), old sections under new headings, and lotsa purdy pictures.

Now I'm just like the next guy - I like my budgets packed with color photos. But I tried my darndest not to grow distracted from the numbers. Here's what I could find:

Defense certainly is up, to a 2005 budget of $401.7 billion from a 2004 budget of around $380 billion. Just for comparison, I looked at the 2000 budget. Defense, $281.6 billion, with an estimate of $320 for 2004.

That same 2000-2005 interval also saw the creation of Homeland Security - operating to the tune of $28 billion in 2003 and with a 2005 budget of $33.8 billion. And Energy is up from $2.8 billion in 2000 to $24.3 billion in 2005; sure enough, a major chunk of that is related to nuclear weapons programs.

Again for comparison, and on a hunch, I peeked at environmental spending. In 2000, the budget for protection of natural resources and the environment was $23.8 billion. In 2005? The EPA is allotted $7.8 billion.

So we can see where priorities lie, and we get the picture that this 7% increase for defense isn't coming entirely out of thin air. Some departments obviously suffer in the process.

Who else gets shafted? Oh, right. I was going to tie this in to education. The Department of Education budget in 2004 was something like $53 billion. Well, $57.3 billion in 2005 is definitely a move in the right direction. Kudos.

Both of these figures, however, are less than the $59.5 billion spent in 2003, which in turn is lower than the $65 billion budgeted for 2002. So before we start patting ourselves on the back, let's remember the increases are relative. Incidentally, in 2002 the administration was proposing an optimistic $70.6 billion in education spending for 2005.

No Child Left Behind, indeed! The conclusion I draw from this, in my naive faith in our leaders' best intentions, is that there must simply be fewer children now.

Of course, if we send them all off to battle...

How many of our soldiers could have identified Baghdad - much less Afghanistan - on a map before 2001? Heck, how many Americans could have?

Perhaps war is the most effective way to teach geography in a country where the east coast and the west coast aren't even aware of anything in-between. In that sense, I guess there are benefits to having a religious man as our Commander in Chief.