Wednesday, 28 October 2009

okayu and dentists

Okayu, or congee in Cantonese, is a rice porridge that is quite common breakfast fare in southern China and commonly eaten when people are ill and unable to digest easily.
This has been the week of okayu. Okayu for breakfast, okayu for dinner.

Fortunately the rice cooker has an okayu setting and with the appropriate amount of rice and water, as determined by the measure on the side of the rice cooker. Overnight the rice cooker turns itself on and the rice and water added the night before will be okayu in the morning.

Why okayu? No stomach ailments, intsead Hiro's interminable visits to the dentist have resulted in 'no chew' food. Simmered pumpkin, tofu, simmered sweet potato, pumpkin and tofu, finely chopped spinach, mince, pudding, simmered eggplant.... It's very tedious, made more so by the fact that I broke the part of the blender that gets used for mincing food when I put a piece of lamb in it a couple of years back. (with the other attachments working it seems like a pity to replace it when usually we can chew food....)

Hiro's dentist, who was recommended by a colleague and is vastly better than the previous dentist who put his bite out of alignment, decided as part of the fixing process part of a tooth would need to be removed exposing the nerve. My common sense would say that this should be covered... but the dentist has a different common sense, not to mention an apparent sadism more suited to the darker chapters of WWII. Hiro went back yesterday - a week later - to have it covered over. But wait, it would be too simple if that fixed it. It is a temporary cover and he needs to go back in a week and a half to get a permanent cover. There is no such thing as a single trip to the dentist. Usually it will require at very best 2 visits but often 4. A couple of years ago Hiro spent 12 Saturdays in a row at the dentist.

Part of the problem seems to be that the insurance system only pays for x minutes of treatment in one go (rather than a set amount per procedure). This has Japanese people in the habit of multiple visits. So a second problem results - dentists milking the system for all it is worth - because they can and there is no incentive for them to finish a patients treatment quickly. Which the law of supply and demand might suggest would be fixed with people going to doctors who were quick and efficient, but that doesn't happen - in part because people are used to long treatments and don't know any better - and partly because most dental universities entry is by payment rather than by academic merit (I suspect strongly that exit may be the same, even though there are supposed to be standardised exams at the end of the course.) The technical skill of dentists seems very low compared with Australia. This does not seem to be the case for doctors - doctors here get flack from foreigners for feeling afronted if they are asked questions and poor bedside manner, but not really for technical skill.

It is very rare to find someone with a good word to say about a dental experience.... sigh...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

After the typhoon

It's a bright and clear post typhoon day in Tokyo.  I have been in this morning to the Bunkyo ku (ward) Civic Centre, next to Tokyo Dome near Korakuen - about 15 mins on the subway. It is one of the few public places, perhaps the only one, where you can see Mt Fuji with Shinjuku in the foreground. I expected that it might be quite crowded - there are an awfully large number of  predominantly men toting SLR with telescopic lens in Tokyo; birds, flowers,  autumn leaves and anything seasonal infact is fair game.  Surprisingly there were only a few people there.

West to Shinjuku and Mt Fuji

North west to Ikebukuro and Sunshine City tower block
East to Ueno park

North with Korakuen botanical garden (note the typhoon passed through northwards on the eastern side of Tokyo. The north east still has lingering clouds.)

Looking down

North east to Ueno and Mt Tsukuba

Monday, 26 October 2009

Bridgestone Art Museum

Yesterday we took a trip in to Kyobashi, near Tokyo station, to go to an exhibition at the Bridgestone Museum. Bridgestone is a translation for the Japanese family name Ishibashi, the founders of the tyre empire. The Ishibashis actually began as tabi makers in Fukuoka - in the north of the main southern island, Kyushu. Tabi are traditional Japanese socks that are either worn with geta {traditional Japanese thongs - in the Australian sense of the word}, or can be rubber soled and worn as sock/shoes. One of the family patriachs decided that with the rubber connection in the tabi making, that they would diversify into tyre production for the newly invented car. In the 1950s they decided to start an art foundation and have been collecting and displaying art ever since.

Their foucus is European art from 1800 or so with particular emphasis on impressionists and modern art. Their artist list is a staggering who's who of post 1800 European art - Rembrant, Monet, Manet, Van Gough, Pissaro, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Cezanne, Miro, Kandinsky, Gaugin to name some of the more prominent.
They also have pieces of ancient artwork including stunning examples of Greek earthernware and quite a bit of modern and contemporary Japanese art - though their main showplace for this is in Fukuoka.
I have included some photos of some of the postcards I bought - you can see the entire collection on their website, some with audio commentary.
(Just as an aside the mother of the present PM, Hatoyama, is of the main Ishibashi family.)

above Port of Concarneau, Paul Signac
left The Riot, Jean Dubuffet

below O7.06.85 Zao Wou-Ki  


Monet, Twighlight, Venice
I cannot work out why the two above will not go horizontally as they are supposed to....

Okada Saburosuke, Portrait of a Lady (this looks just like the pictures used for the Sapporo beer adds of the 20s and 30s)

Hatsu shimo: getting colder

Japan pays fastidiously detailed attention to the seasons.
The text books here have a mantra of Japan being special because it has four season - which irritates a lot of foreigners because many other places also have four seasons.   I have heard before, unsubstantiated, that the preoccupation of having four seasons comes in the 1800s when Japan is endeavouring to ''civilized and enlightened'' which meant Europeanised rather than Asian (where 4 seasons is not the norm). 
The theory of 4 seasons being relatively new seems plausible, in part based on the minute detail of seasonal markers, that suggest to me that in all likelihood Japan had more seasons in the past.
23rd of October  is marked as the day of the first frost of Honshu Island.  (occurring in the northernmost Aomori prefecture.   This year the actual first frost was on the 22nd - if my hearing of NHK news was correct.  Nagano prefecture -  a mountain prefecture - 26th is the marker date for the first frost, though the heavy rain we are having today suggests they probably didn't.  Tokyo apparently does not get it's frost until a month later.

The weather has shifted markedly since the first frost day, significantly colder. bbbbrrrrr
Bring out the down! I am not made for winter.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Ginza is one of my favourite Tokyo neighbourhoods.  There is little in the neigbourhood that is very old - the Wako building was one of the few in the area that survived the bombing of World War II.  It has the reputation of being very posh, matronly and perhaps a little staid, which doesn't give credit to the refined and  understanded elegance, but also to the cutting edge architecture.
Ginza is home to upscale traditional Japanese department stores, most notably Mitsukoshi but also Matsuya and Matsuzakaya.  I rarely venture upstairs to the fashion floors where I can only dream of ever fitting into the clothes, but the basement of Mitsukoshi is a feast for the eyes, nose and mouth of a gourmet, perhaps explaining the fit of the clothes...  Ginza a 'ladies' part of town with kimono shops, sweets and cakes and cafes, handbags & shoes, Japanese traditional paper & stationery, French restaurants and the delicate tastes of Japanese kaiseki ryori.  This is a sharp contrast to next door Shimbashi, salary-man town full of pachinko parlours, standing noodle bars, ramen shops, izakaya, and 'pink' industries.
I almost never buy anything in Ginza, when I first came to Japan and was looking for a handbag for a wedding (at the time the Austrlian dollar was almost 50 to 100 Japanese yen)  a colleague of Hiro's suggested that I should look for a handbag in Wako.  I almost choked when after searching for the cheapest bag in the shop found it to be more than 40000 yen. The average was around 100,000..... But not far from Wako is Uniqlo, still relatively smartly presented, but where a handbag might cost 1000y.
As old buildings get knocked down and replaced, Ginza probably has close to the best collection of modern architecture shopping in the world.
Here are some photos - almost all from Ginza 1-4  - it would be much easier to get good photos with a wide angle lens.

The main drag of Ginza

The de Beers buiding

Hermes Building                                 PIAS building
Fuji-ya building                                                    
 Ricoh Building / Doutor Cafe            Mikimoto II


Bulgari                                             Cartier
        Ito-ya stationery         

Zara                                          A bus stop cafe             

Yamaha Building Tasaki Building

Friday, 16 October 2009

High school tuition

The recent national election has changed the party in power for the first time since the war. ( Although there was  a brief coalition govt about 15 years ago, it wasn't a majority goverment and didn't last last long.) The recent elections though represent a sea change from the LPD which was pro-US, pro construction and pro farming.  The LDP had their power bases in the regions, and while they handed out a lot of money there they haven't done that much to help the regions become self reliant or helped them adapt to being part of a global economy.  
The new DPJ  government is very inexperienced - obviously since they are new - though some MPs have previously belonged to the LDP.  They are getting a lot of flack for being populist.  In some cases its a fair charge making expressways free seems counter productive on many fronts.
Another change they have committed to is making high school education free.  At  present junior high school (years 7-9)  tuition is free, however for high school students have to pay I think around 150,000 dollars a year.  (About 1,800AUD/a).  Students drop out of high school because they can't afford it.  It's a travesty befitting economies of 80 years ago.  For a country like Japan, where manual labour jobs have decreased significantly, it's unbelievable that some people aren't getting high school education because they can't afford it.

Today in Ginza there was a rally of sorts of high school students, and principals , that were calling for free tuition. Good on them! It's positive to see students politicised and believing that they can influence govt. policy. I hope the govt. comes good on their promise ASAP.

Friday and the week that has been.

Hiro has been away for the past few days which has resulted in a break from cooking - one substantial lunch time meal outside,  yoghurt and apples and who needs to cook! :)
Wed. I organised to meet a friend and her two year old daughter on south bound train at the local train station (they live a little further north so I waited and jumped on the same train they were on). We had a lovely time at the park in Ueno where there are many of Tokyo's most prestigious museums and galleries.    In the afternoon I took a train to Narita to meet a friend, who was transiting overnight, for dinner and caught the last train back.   The 'last train' is very important when living in Japan.  Anyone who is out in the evening always knows the time of their last train home.    Often there is a mini stampede at Shinjuku station in particular for the last train home - missing it means spending the night in a capsule hotel or a karaoke bar.   (A couple of years ago Hiro fell asleep on the train and ended up at the terminal station with no trains back.....easily done..)
Yesterday I cycled to meet another friend for lunch at a local Indian restaurant.  For some reason, lunch time menus here are often 1/2 or 1/3 - sometimes more, cheaper than dinner time. 
And today I went to meet a friend at the National Cancer Centre before going to the gyoza place in Shimbashi that Hiro and I went to the other day.  She is a truly remarkable person - she's been here for ... a long time perhaps close to 20 years? ... has perfect Japanese, four children, and has been fighting cancer for the past 8 or so.  It's always a delight to meet her - her grace and positive spirit are both humbling and inspiring.   She has just changed medicine regimes but was quite well enough to walk the distance back to Shimbashi for gyoza.  This is her web page.
Hiro is back tonight so some cooking might be in order!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Learning Japanese...sigh...

After 6 or so years here, my Japanese still leaves much to be desired. I have several Japanese friends, but only one of whom I speak to in Japanese. Hiro is at work most of the time and our language of communication has never switched to Japanese - though there a fair bit of Japanese mixed in with our English.  (including Japanese words I mangle to fit with English grammar).
There are several obstacles to improvement, aside from age.
One is that I don't actually need to use it particularly. I have plenty enough Japanese to buy the groceries, go to the dry cleaner, exchange pleasantries, ask for cooking advice at the vegetable shop. It's a big jump between this and being able to express informed opinions on current affairs.

A further problem is that no-one corrects me.... sigh.... sigh... and triple sigh... I feel like such a dufus when I realise something that I thought was OK, and have been using for years, is actually a mistake.

Additionally going to classes doesn't make so much sense as there will be people who are much better and much worse - intermediate is a very big grey zone. 

And something that use not to bug, but is starting to, is Japanese people with very limited English speaking to me in very broken English.   For some reason there is a preconception, particularly among railway, restaurant, and shopkeepers  that people with white skin can't speak Japanese.  eg At Hamamatsucho station the other day I asked the JR staff which way to proceed through the station to get to the Pokemon Centre.  The answer... : downu sutepo,  ri to, ...   I will have my assertive boots on next time and repeat back in Japanese  'what you are saying  is.....go down these steps and turn right'.  It seems very petty, I know...     I find at the local govt. classes I need to be insistent about speaking English as everyone there also would like to speak better English as well.... grrrr

Going to the local govt. lessons is good though.  Last  Fri I went and there was a very sweet Japanese woman in her 30s or so who was paired with me.  After almost 2 hours I persuaded her that correcting me was actually very helpful not very rude.   In some ways that is the best way to learn - having a patient person correct, while at the same time working at home on improving my vocab.

Having said that, I'd better get back to it...:)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Happy sports day

It is a three day long weekend here.
Today celebrates Sport! Happy Sports Day!
This weekend across Japan thousands of schools will have their school sports days - or undokai.  It's a bit mean really to put school events on the Sun. of a long weekend... but it seems to happen a lot in Japan.  I can't imagine teachers or parents in Australia would tolerate it though...

We haven't done much sport over the weekend to celebrate.
Hiro had to work in Kawasaki over the weekend, so while he was doing that,  I took the chance to go to the local govt. weekend Japanese classes. We met early evening for gyoza (pan friend Chinese style dumplings)  at a gyoza specialist place in Shimbashi that had all sorts of offbeat fillings - tomato, corriander, shiitake, shiso leaf. Delicious - well worth the trip in !
Sunday we met one of my school friends and her family in Shinjuku.  We had a busy day of sightseeing.  With a  3 and 5 year old in mind I endeavoured to keep walking to a minimum, but the reality of Tokyo is that it's impossible to sight see by public transport and not walk.  We stopped off at Koishikawa Korakuen which is my favourite garden in Tokyo, then onto Akihabara, Shimbashi - to get some bento, Odaiba - via the Yurikamome line, back across by boat, to the Pokemon centre.... , Harakuju and Kiddyland toyshop, before having dinner in Shinjuku.  A busy day.

Koishikawa Korakuen

Fuji television building from the boat back from Odaiba

Friday, 9 October 2009

The day after

Today's sky doesn't have the glorious brightness that usually follows a typhoon. Dust and dirt have been swept away by the winds, and for a brief while last night Mt Fuji towered over anywhere in Tokyo high enough to see it, but today the clouds are back.
Going to work yesterday Hiro was saturated within two minutes of walking outside.  A raincoat helps up to a point but with the wind the rain comes from all directions making an umbrella totally redundant.  Such is the nature of a typhoon's onward march, by the time he got to his destination - 23 minutes on the subway - no changes - the sky was clear and blue.
Many trains were cancelled - if winds greater than 90km/hour are recorded, services will be suspended.  This naturally is a great inconvenience for the people who are on the train and often stuck between stations, and in the early morning very likely to be standing in a packed carriage.  Pity the people with weak bladders or irritable bowel syndrome... 
Life seems back to normal in Tokyo today with futons and washing hanging from local balconies.

* Update: It seems like 2 people have been killed - one from a falling tree at a shrine, one a newspaper delivery man who was on his paper run killed when his bike hit a fallen tree.  (The ability of newspapers to get their morning deliveries out and on time and dry is truly remarkable.. though in this case at terrible cost to a delivery man...)  One person is missing and there is conjecture about whether the death of a surfer who drowned should be counted in the typhoon statistics.  (I was amazed several years back when down at Kamakura before a typhoon, at the number of surfers in the water who were waiting for the big waves from the typhoon.....

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The skies are blue.

The typhoon has passed over and gone north with minimal damage it seems.  One person only seems to have died.  In the 50s a similar intensity typhoon killed thousands.  It is a great credit to the early warning systems that there was so little damage.  This map is on a more useful scale.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Typhoon 18 is getting closer

The rain is becoming more steady as the typhoon approaches. It is supposed to be reasonably high intensity.  The Meteorological Agency are forecasting 600mm for the Nagoya area! They are now talking of twin typhoons.  Let's hope there is no earthquake in the next few days - very wet soil would mean a high chance of landslides.  No danger of that where I am though!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Typhoon 18

There is a typhoon coming.
Yesterday it rained.
Today it rained.
It is raining now.
It will rain tonight.
It will rain tomorrow.
It will rain Thursday.
It will rain Friday.
It will be a beautiful day on Saturday - blue sky, clear air - pollution and haze swept away by the typhoon winds, Mt Fuji visible from the balcony.
Courtesy of the Japanese meteorological agency you can see the path that the typhoon, the 18th of the season, will take.  The one to the south is affecting the Philippines.  It is unusual for a typhoon to move over the whole Japanese archipelago  - often it goes up one coast or the other.


Hiro has taken left over quiche for lunch - his office has recently invested in a microwave.
I wonder if it will be like taking a salami sandwhich to school in Australia in the 1960s?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Chooks would be good.

This is good (dinner one night last week)

This is also good (last nights dinner (the pumpkin one) - from the blog of a remarkable NZ woman in Japan)

This is tonight's dinner (with some minor modifications  - eg fry in sesame, switch ricotta and milk for yoghurt and hard cheese)

It would be easier to experiment if I had some chooks to eat the food that went wrong....

Tokyo Bay

Following on from the entry about the reclaimed Jonanjima Park (Jima = shima = island), I thought something about land reclamation in Tokyo Bay might be apt.  This picture, which comes courteousy of Wikipedia, shows contemporary Tokyo Bay. Yokohama and Kawasaki are on the south west shoreline, Tokyo in the North and North West, Chiba (which includes Disney) starts in the north and goes down the whole eastern length.
You can see clearly by the carved angular teeth that jut out into the bay, there is a lot of reclaimed land.  There are maps that show the change in the shape of Tokyo Bay over the history of land reclamation.  A quick google didn't turn it up - but I will keep an eye out in the future.
The changes in the shape of Tokyo Bay over the past 250  years are quite extreme.  The difference between the built up Tokyo-Yokohama stretch is also sharp contrast to the much less densely populated southern Chiba.

Jonanjima seaside park

Yesterday we went to Hiro's favourite park in Tokyo - Jonanjima Seaside Park. It's an unusual park in that it's all on reclaimed land - even the beach there is reclaimed land!  Much of Tokyo Bay though is reclaimed land.  Jonanjima is located straight across from Haneda, the fifth busiest airport in the world, which makes it a great place for a plane spotter. At about 3pm or so I was timing how long between each plane that passed over. I only timed for three consecutive take-offs but for those three, the time between each was only 1min 20 seconds. Busy!
Jonanjima Kaihin Park  

Looking across the beach to Haneda

Shellfish gathering is popular and there are signs saying collection is for personal use only.

Looking across Tokyo Bay to port unloading facilities

As I was checking the stats for the world's busiest airports, I was quite surprised US airports dominate airport rankings for passenger numbers and flight movements but for international passenger movements the highest ranked US airport was JFK at no. 19. This put the busiest US International airport behind cities like Istanbul, Taipei, Dubai, Seoul, Madrid, Dublin.
The top 10 in case you are interested.
1. London Heathrow Airport London 61,345,518
2. Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport Paris 55,804,279
3. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol Amsterdam 47,349,319
4. Hong Kong International Airport Hong Kong 47,201,000
5. Frankfurt Airport Frankfurt 46,707,577
6. Dubai International Airport Dubai 36,592,307
7. Singapore Changi Airport Singapore 36,288,050
8. Narita International Airport Tokyo 32,343,590
9. London Gatwick Airport London 30,433,810
10. Barajas Airport Madrid 30,135,120

(Haneda is mostly domestic flights so doesn't make this list.  The lists of passenger / flight movts. are overwhelmingly in the US, which is unlikely to be interesting unless you have an interest in US domestic airports.)

The Olympics

To disappointment of few in Japan it seems, and despite the cheery lights on Tokyo Tower, Tokyo didn't get the Olympics.  I think there was a sigh of relief from many that tax dollars wouldn't be spent on infrastructure that wouldn't get much use.  There was no effervescent buzz or hyped expectations.
The Olympics seem to suit cities with young populations, that need a push to develop new, or gentrify existing, infrastructure.  With rapidly appearing lifts and other infrastructure for the aging population, it's a pity that there isn't more made of the disabled Olympics.  A bid from Tokyo for this would be hard to beat.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Three reflections

Yesterday as I cycled from here down Meiji Dori to Takadanobaba, about 5km away, to exchange books with a friend, three things about Japan struck me.

1. Japan is a very orderly country.  The previous afternoon I was a good citizen and  I put out the recycling garbage boxes out -  cans, glass, and PET bottles - in the rubbish collection space in front of the apartment building.  I looked over the balcony next morning to find them rearrange - neat, tidy, lined up in a straight line against the brickwork with the crow net neatly and completely covering the bags of burnable rubbish.

Cycling back from Takadanobaba, along Meiji dori the ordered lines of people waiting to board the buses also struck me as being very ordered.  A closer inspection of the bus lines brought on the next reflection.

2. Some Japanese people are very, very, very slim  - not all, not necessarily even most, but some.  Yesterday I passed two women who were so slim (not anorexic, just naturally, healthily slim) who would still weigh less than I would if I were to die of starvation.  I mean that quite literally. The upside of that is that I would probably last longer than them if trapped under a building for a week after an earthquake.

3. There are so many old people in Tokyo.  It is great people can get out and are mobile despite age and infirmity however I think in the foreseeable future there will no longer be 'silver seats' set aside for the aged and infirm on public transport.  The whole train will be  'silver seat'.