Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We're ramen (and I hope you like ramen too)

Nothing especially interesting has happened since my last update; last friday and saturday involved drinking beer while eating sushi and singing karaoke, and drinking beer while watching movies, respectively. Nevertheless, I'm in the mood for blogging, so this post shall be one of my glimpses into an aspect of Japanese (pop) culture.

Today I want to discuss noodles. While a lot of bullshit may be talked about Inuits' snow jargon, I can personally vouch for Japanese having at least three commonly used words for noodles. Nobody ever refers to them generically, but instead specifies the type of noodle in question: soba, udon, or ramen.

As a bit of a tangent, you also rarely hear fish or other seafood spoken about generically. This is a country that takes fish very seriously, so while us Brits are happy with fish and chips, the Japanese would want to know exactly what species is under the batter. Conversely, it is not uncommon to see dishes here advertised as containing unspecified 'meat', which would surely set alarm bells ringing back home.

But, noodles. Udon are the fat pale ones made from wheat, while soba are the thinner brownish-grey ones made from buckwheat. The distinction between white and brown bread is a fairly good Western analogy. Historically, soba was stigmatised as peasant food, because buckwheat is essentially a weed that grows anywhere, whereas proper wheat requires proper fields. However, here in Yamagata, soba is favoured as a point of pride. The mountainous terrain here really isn't much use for arable farming, so the hardy buckwheat plant got the region through some tough times. I'm struck by the similarity to the Scots' penchant for oats, which the English deemed suitable only for horses.

Talking of weeds (yes, another digression - what of it?), I learned today that marijuana grows wild around these parts. I was confused by a poster at school that had pictures of the iconic fan leaves, alongside photos of poppies. Asking a teacher, I gathered that the poster was instructing you to report any sightings of these plants to the police. The draconian drug laws here make the UK look positively progressive, so you can rest assured that I won't be going on any suspicious foraging expeditions in the mountains anytime soon.

Back to soba. Now that we have entered the hot and humid summer months, people like to eat cold soba. One is given a big pile of greyish noodles on (not in, on) a slatted bamboo box. Accompanying this is a bowl of dilute soy sauce with bits of spring onion floating in it, to which, if you are any kind of man, you will add a raw egg. One dips a chopsticks-ful of soba into the bowl and then eats it, though to watch a Japanese person do it, the action looks more like inhalation. Squid tempura (also cold) is a popular side-dish to round out the meal. So all-in-all, quite a challenging dish for the gaijin palate. Not bad once you get used to it, though.

That brings me to ramen. There are precious few things Japan likes about China, but ramen - Chinese wheat noodles - is undoubtedly one of them. Ramen fulfills a role similar to the doner kebab at home, namely that of late-night food of choice for the inebriated. However, unlike doner kebabs (to anyone except me), they are also enjoyed as a hearty meal when stone-cold sober.

Within the basic framework of noodles in some kind of broth, there is a lot of scope for variation. The three most popular bases are soy, miso, and salt. The last one strikes me as rather unimaginative, not to mention unhealthy. Every region has its own style, and Akayu ramen are actually modestly famous. I suppose this stands to reason - Akayu is a bit of a party town thanks to its onsen (hot springs) which attract tourists, and after an evening of bathing, drinking far too much, and sexually harassing hostesses, you're going to need some ramen. Anyway, Akayu-style is miso with a generous dollop of fiery chili paste, which I believe is made from locally-grown chilis. Supplementing this are the standard ingredients: char siu pork, bamboo shoots, some leafy vegetable, and a single slice of kamaboko, a weird substance made from processed fish. It's good stuff, but as a resident of Akayu I would say that.

The reason that this is on my mind is that today and yesterday were bento days at school, meaning that the school lunch service was suspended and therefore one should bring a bento (packed lunch). This happens whenever some event is on that means that the school has substantially less than 100% of its students - this time it was a track and field competition. Yesterday it caught me out, necessitating a run to the shop. But today I came prepared with a bowl of Ryu Shanhai instant ramen (literally, 'Shanghai dragon' - ryu means dragon, and should be pronounced as a single syllable, which I didn't realise as a Street Fighter 2-playing 12-year-old).

Japan is of course the brithplace of the instant noodle, and they've raised this much-maligned convenience food to an art form. I'd gone for the top end of the market; Ryu Shanhai is Akayu's number one ramen shop (actually, I think it has spawned a small franchise), and in a massive publicity coup, you can buy a dehydrated approximation of their spicy miso ramen (containing four - count them, four - different sachets) in the supermarket.

My fellow teachers were quite amused by my choice of lunch; I'm not sure whether they were simply happy that I was flying the Akayu flag, or if they thought it was ridiculous that I was eating the freeze-dried facsimile when the actual restaurant was just down the road. At any rate, it was a good conversation point. Everyone has an opinion on what the best ramen joint in town is (there are plenty to choose from) - while Ryu Shanhai is the most famous, not everyone thinks its reputation is deserved. Apparently their recipe is oilier than most, which puts some off. I don't eat ramen all that often, and when I do I am quite often smashed, so I don't have a particularly well-informed opinion on this question. Nevertheless, I claimed that Marie's favourite ramen shop (Shin Ryu - 'new dragon' - are you spotting a theme here?) was my favourite, which got some approving nods.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A state of confusion, to keep you all Gassan

I really struggled for a title on this occasion.

My computer arrived yesterday, so I am once again in the fast lane of the information superhighway, as people haven't called it since about 1997. Not a moment too soon! Now follows the story of my weekend, which I was going to tell you before got stuck in a rant about driving licences.

Supply and demand are fickle mistresses. From January to March, if one wants to partake in snowsports in Yamagata, one is spoilt for choice. Little ski areas are scattered throughout the mountainous prefecture, and of course the grandaddy of them all is Zao, where 4,800 yen buys you access to 42 lifts, and not a surface lift among them. One would not dream of paying 4,600 yen to go to a resort with a single, slow chairlift. Yet that is exactly what I did yesterday.

I went to Mount Gassan (literally, 'moon mountain'), a resort which claims to have the latest season in Japan. The area collects such a quantity of snow that it is inaccessible until April, and typically remains open until late July. Though it is an underwhelming ski area in every other respect, this temporal offset earns it a certain fame around these parts. Having heard so much about it, I decided I had to experience summer boarding for myself.

Feeling flush, I took the toll road there. Initially, these expressways intimidated me in my little Suzuki, but now I like them. It's a good system - if getting somewhere fast is important to you, you can pay for it; this charge deters all the old farmers that clog up the regular roads in their kei-trucks. I hear that the current (socialist) government plans to abolish the tolls - a plan which, should it come to fruition, would cause me to curse the new Prime Minister Kan's name at the top of my lungs, like this.

My initial impressions of Gassan were not good. For a start, I had to walk almost a kilometer from my car to get to the chairlift. The altitude did little to reduce the heat; I was walking uphill, carrying my board and wearing boarding gear, at a temperature somewhere in the low twenties, and was consequently sweating rivers. Finally reaching my destination, my heart sank to see a lengthy queue snaking back from the lift. When I finally got up, I decided to head for the two drag lifts. At one of these, I was told that I couldn't use it without paying extra, which seemed outrageous considering the over-the-odds amount I'd already handed over. I suspect this may have been the case at the other one too, but that the guy there was just less on the ball about checking tickets.

As the draglifts didn't seem to unlock any particularly juicy terrain, I decided that they could stick their T-bars, and I headed for the run served by the chairlift. I found that snowboarding in summer presents a number of unique challenges, which I shall present in one of my beloved bulleted lists.
  • Moguls. Obviously no fresh snow is falling, and I have my doubts that this two-bit operation even owned any piste bashers. Thus skiers create moguls and they just keep stacking up. While it is possible to ride moguls on a board, it is no fun at all. To be honest, I can't really see how it's fun on skis either. So I had to take some pretty creative lines to avoid these killing fields.
  • Heat. One ends up having to make an uneasy compromise between safety and comfort. After a brief experiment with just a T-shirt (specifically, my bright red School of Informatics T-shirt) on my torso, I gave in and put on my jacket (waterproof outer only, naturally) - snow on bare skin hurts. However, there was no way I was wearing my helmet.
  • Snow. The snow was very soft and melty, as one might expect. Now, I've been known to quite enjoy spring snow, but the stickiness of this stuff in places was getting a little silly. Still, I'll take it over ice any day.
  • Insects. I'm convinced they were more attracted to my gaijin sweat than anyone else's on the mountain.
So all in all, not great. But I persevered and things got a little better. The crowds really thinned out later in the day - maybe other people got sick of the queueing and threw in the towel, or maybe Gassan's limited terrain means people typically just go for a few hours. By the afternoon I had scoped out the best spots and figured out a couple of good lines. From the chairlift one could easily access a steep-sided valley that reminded me quite strongly of the Coire na Ciste / West Wall at Cairngorm, and for some reason most of the skiers were leaving it alone in favour of traversing over to Mogul Hell. Some guys had also built one of the most violently kicky kickers I've ever ridden, but I managed to keep it together and land an indy off it first time, garnering whoops of praise.

So, I'm glad I've now been to the legendary Gassan, but I can't really recommend it. Saying that, when I think of some of the other desperate measures I've taken to get my boarding fix during the summer - riding the hexagons of pain at Hillend, or paying 35 quid for four hours in a cold warehouse outside Glasgow - Gassan doesn't seem quite so insane. Bring on the winter!

Monday, June 14, 2010

You drive me crazy

As of today, I'm a little bit less of a gaijin. You see, I finally got my Japanese driving licence. Thankfully I was exempt from taking any kind of aptitude test thanks to an agreement between the UK and Japanese governments. However, getting my licence was still far from easy, involving running an incredibly tiresome bureaucratic gauntlet.

It took no fewer than three trips to the prefectural capital, and on each occasion I had to be accompanied by my supervisor to act as interpreter. Thus, upwards of three man-days of public servant time was wasted in order to negotiate the red tape of another branch of the public sector. It's no wonder this country has a national debt of 200% GDP.

The first trip was to get my British licence translated, which seems reasonable on the face of it, but when you think about it is a bit of a nonsense. It's not like I come from Sangala or something (I'm currently rewatching 24 season 7) - they must have seen a British licence before. And what is there to translate, really?

The second trip was actually applying for the licence, which was far from straightforward. It seems they are very concerned about illegal immigrants and/or counterfeit licences. I was asked all sorts of questions about the particulars of my licence and test. Often, I didn't know the answers - I challenge you to tell me what all the letters on the back of your licence mean. When I said I wasn't sure, my interrogator said that wasn't good enough: he needed a definite answer. This really got my back up, and I felt like arguing that his request was unreasonable, and I was unwilling to potentially lie to the Japanese government because he was bullying me. But I realised it was one of those situations where you should just give them the answer they want to hear. Like at airports, where they won't thank you for giving an inventory of all the things in your baggage that could conceivably be used to kill someone, as truthful and carefully thought-out as the answer may be.

I ran into particular problems because I renewed my passport shortly before coming to Japan. Consequently I couldn't prove that I'd lived in the UK for 90 days prior to getting my international driving permit, which is a condition of its validity. We ended up getting my degree certificates faxed through from the JET people, to confirm that I had indeed been resident in the UK before coming to Japan. The guy further tried my patience by complaining that my signature didn't match the one on my licence. Though to be fair, it doesn't. My signature has evolved a lot in a decade. Signatures really are a terrible way of verifying identity. Roll on retinal scans - the occasional eye theft would be a small price to pay to avoid all this hassle.

After about three hours the inquisitor was finally satisfied. It's almost literally true that I've been awarded doctorates with less of a grilling. Bear in mind that I come from a respectable first-world nation, am a Japanese public servant, and was accompanied by another civil servant who could vouch for me. I dread to think what kind of treatment the average Filipina hostess would receive at the licensing department. Waterboarding, probably.

Today I had to return to get the the actual licence. All this involved was having my photo taken (though of course for my application they didn't let me use their camera, instead expecting me to pay 600yen for the photo booth). Also, myself and all the other applicants had to be there between 8:30 and 9:00 to sign up, meaning I had to leave Nanyo at 7:30, and I imagine many of the other people there would have come from much further afield. Somehow, showing up, getting my picture taken, and them printing it on a licence took all morning, but I am now the proud over of yet another form of ID.

I'm sorry, this was only meant to be a preamble to a post about my weekend. Like oil from a BP well, it's difficult to stem my flow of bile for governmental harassment once it gets started. Normal service will resume shortly.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The primate psychedelic reel

Back in the day, when I worked at King's Buildings, Danny and I devised a plan to help motivate ourselves to work on our respective PhDs. We would arrange to meet on the corner between our flats at 9am sharp, and then walk to uni together. The intention was that we would put in a honest morning's work, rather than rolling in at half ten and spending the first hour checking email and reading news, as both of us were prone to do. We called these morning meet-ups 'powerstarts'.

How things have changed. 9am now seems disgracefully pedestrian to me, as I have to be at school by 8:20 every day. But yesterday I had a start that threatened to set the rice paddies ablaze with its raw power. You see, on sunday night I was drinking with Marie et al, and one of the al is the wife of the local Buddhist priest. She mentioned that their temple was hosting the Rotary Club (a different one to the one I've been hanging out with - Nanyo appartenly has at least two) for a special morning zazen (Zen meditation) session. Knowing that I was interested in Zen, she asked me if I would like to go to. Possibly against my better judgement, I accepted the invitation. Thus, I awoke at 5:40, to be at the temple for 6:30.

First we had a spartan Buddhist (i.e. vegetarian) breakfast of okayu (watery rice porridge) and tsukemono (pickles), including umeboshi (pickled plum). Allow me to go on a quick umeboshi digression. This breathtakingly sour plum has a reputation second only to natto for troubling foreigners. It's taken me a while to get used to the squishy pink fruit, but I now quite enjoy it. Popping in an umeboshi is the perfect way to enliven an otherwise boring glass of shouchuu (rice spirit). The thing is, you have to be mentally prepared for umeboshi. If you're chomping on a riceball that you believe to contain salmon, then hit an unexpected umeboshi, it can be quite a shock, rather like the time I mistook cullen skink for white chocolate mousse.

Breakfast over, some obligatory speeches were made, and the priest explained what to do. Obviously I didn't understand much of this, but having done zazen before I felt confident that I knew the drill. Actually, this was a very non-threatening context to meditate in, since the guests were all businessmen rather than trained Buddhists. Despite the language barrier, I felt that I probably had a firmer grasp of what was going on than most in the room. We only had time for about about five minutes of actual zazen, which really isn't enough - it usually takes about twice that for my mind to get anywhere near settled. The priest said that he normally does eighty minutes of a morning, which is an impressively long time to do absolutely nothing.

Ok, let's backtrack to the weekend. A dozen gaijin form Yamagata (actually, 11 and a Japanese girlfriend) decided to take a trip to Fukushima City, the capital of Fukushima, which is one of the four prefectures neighbouring ours. As I said before, it's not far away, but it seems distant because between here and there lies a formidable mountain range. Driving there I seemed to spend about as much time in tunnels as out of them. First on the agenda was a trip to Round One, a kind of adult playground. By this I don't mean that it was filled with S&M gear, but rather that it was essentially a warehouse packed with all manner of sports, games and entertainment for you to play. Highlights for me included:
  • Inline skating. Whenever I don protective gear I throw caution directly into the wind, so despite having negligible skating ability I was charging around aggressively, several times eating wall with considerable velocity but always getting back on my feet laughing.
  • Baseball. Being British, I had never swung a baseball bat in my life. Here they had those machines that fire balls at you, like in the movies. Even at the slowest setting, I found it a real struggle.
  • Bucking bronco. This was sufficiently tame that boredom, as opposed to the robo-bull's gyrations, was the real limiting factor to one's stint in the saddle. I attempted to up the ante by riding it backwards, a position which looked at least three times as obscene, but my reverse-cowboy antics were swiftly shut down by a vigilant attendant.
  • One-man table tennis. Inside a cell made of netting (there were a lot of those in this place) a ping-pong table was set up, with another machine firing an ever-quickening barrage of balls at you. The opposite half of the table was split into sixteen squares kitted out with LEDs and sensors. When a square lit up, you had to hit it, just like Whac-a-mole. This was incredibly addictive, and around 60% more fun than actual table tennis.
  • Free arcade machines. Arcades are pretty popular in Japan, so I find myself in them quite frequently. I've noticed that most of my gaijin buddies favour the shooting games, but not me. I'm very much a rhythm games man. The king of arcade rhythm games is of course Dance Dance Revolution, and on this particular machine I was delighted to find a cheesy J-pop reworking of My Favourite Things. That's the second weird cover of My Favourite Things I've encountered in the space of a month.
  • Kids' area. This was set up as two well-padded forts, with hundreds of little foam balls lying around. So far, so Codona's. But these forts had weapons, namely cannons, into which you fed the balls before propelling them out with a burst of compressed air at the slap of a button. Trying to hit the opposing gunners while dodging their salvos was, I'm pretty sure, more fun than any adventure playground of my childhood.

There were also tiny electric bikes you could race, but unfortunately I had to sit that one out because I weigh more than 80kg. Comfortably the oddest thing I witnessed was the fishing corner, where there was a circular pool maybe 3m in diameter, into which a lone old man was solemnly dangling a crappy plastic rod. I found it strangely heartbreaking. Judging by the organic bait, I think the fish were, unlike the bull, real. However, I didn't see any fish in the two minutes I watched.

For us gaijin living in the inaka (countryside), any trip to a big city is a golden opportunity to eat food that isn't Japanese. Dinner that night was Mexican. The food was very tasty, but the place was jumping and the waiting and/or kitchen staff seemed to be struggling to keep up. Anything we ordered had a roughly 70% chance of arriving. The make-your-own tacos in particular were a logistical nightmare due to their numerous components. Then duplicate items started appearing, as stuff which we had presumed forgotten turned out just to be horrendously delayed. I identified that there was virtually no chance of the bill being correct, and was preparing myself for a painful dispute over renumeration. While I was right about the inaccuracy, fortunately it had gone in our favour, and I ended up paying about 12 quid for a big bowl of 'taco rice', a beef enchilada, a tequila, a margarita, and one-sixth of a copious raft of appetisers. I felt more than a little guilty, but couldn't face trying to explain the mistake in Japanese.

It is interesting to see the Japanese interpretation of foreign food. My aforementioned taco rice is a case in point. The Japanese love a rice bowl - rice topped with beef and onion is gyuudon, with curry sauce is kareeraisu, and with raw fish is chirashizushi. Taco rice, it turns out, is a bowl of rice topped with chili beef, cheese, salsa, and - unexpectly - a fried egg. I have long contended that any hot savoury dish can be enhanced by adding a fried egg. Though inauthentic, it was filling and delicious; I approve heartily.

After the Mexican we went for a late-night karaoke session, eventually getting back to our hotel around half two. The next morning I took a stroll around Fukushima, which seemed like a nice place, but then most places do under a cloudless summer sky. Something seemed not quite right but I couldn't put my finger on it, until I realised that I had virtually no shadow. Approaching noon in Japan in June, the sun is almost directly overhead - an unusual phenomenon for a Scot.

We didn't squander the opportunity to have more foreign cuisine at lunch, enjoying a tasty and reasonable Indian buffet. After that we went our separate ways. Because it was such a beautiful day, I decided to take the spaghetti-like mountain road back, instead of the more practical tunnel-fest of the previous day. First I encountered a dam which was striking enough that I decided to park the car and check it out. (I currently lack the facility to extract photos from my camera, so you'll have to rely on my turgid prose for now.) After this the road became very silly indeed, just a single track barely clinging to a forested mountainside. Rounding one of many sharp, blind bends, I was astonished to see a group of three or four Japanese macaques gambolling across the road not ten metres in front of me. I quickly pulled over, killed the stereo and hit the hazards, but the monkeys had scarpered into the forest, the shaking treetops being the only indication of their existence. I later spotted some more further along the road.

I had known that there were wild monkeys around these parts - there are road signs warning of them, and at the dam earlier in the day there were signs instructing you not to feed them. I had never seen any before, leading me to suspect that they were mythical. But no, I can confirm the primates are genuine. I was/am really excited about this, and told anyone who would listen at school the next day. They didn't share my enthusiasm - it was like my first earthquake all over again. I suppose if someone was waxing lyrical about seeing a deer in the Scottish Highlands you would think them a little foolish.

The border between Yamagata and Fukushima - at the summit of a mountain pass - was the second time I was moved to disembark my vehicle by the sheer beauty of my surroundings. To the west was the rice-covered basin I call home, to the east a steep-sided leafy valley stretching into the distance. I continually surprise myself with how much I love the mountains. Fetching though Scotland's mountains are, they have all been worn down and smoothed off as the result of being buried for aeons under incomprehensible masses of ice. The mountains around here have not been mellowed in this way, and thus thrust up from the surrounding terrain at gradients that seem, to my eyes at least, frankly implausible. These conical volcanic peaks are like a children's drawings of mountains, beautiful in their simplicity.

To a scientist like myself, I am struck with the irrationality of being happy at the mere existence of mounds of inanimate rock. But what can I say? Cheesy though it sounds, just looking up at the mountains that permanently ring my horizon is enough to lift my spirits whenever I'm feeling down.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I Think I'm Padanoid

Just a quick post to let you know that my beloved ThinkPad T42 seems to be dying on me. I reckon it's a graphics issue - by turning the hardware acceleration right down I seem to have prevented it from freezing up every five minutes. However, I suspect it is on borrowed time now so my blog updates and other communications may become a little sporadic for a while. Should it die completely, I will remain tenuously connected to the internet by virtue of the my Archos and PS3, but these are less than ideal, having a total of zero keyboards between them.

I can't really complain; I was given this machine free-to-a-good-home two and a half years ago when its previous owner got a new system - cheers, Team Luxembourg. So it must be about five years old, and lord knows I've given it some heavy use.

I'm now writing on the Archos, the ThinkPad having crashed. I can confirm that it's a massive pain in the arse, so I'll keep it brief.

This weekend myself and a bunch of other Yamagata ALTs are going for a day and night of merrymaking, not in our backyards, but in Fukushima. I'm looking forward to notching up another prefecture. Actually, it's criminal that I haven't been sooner, as Fukushima City is only a little further away than Yamagata.