Monday, 28 December 2009

Honda ideas

On Sun, we had the great fortune to pass by Honda.

A bike is a bike is a bike... or perhaps not.
Hiro finds something rather spiritual about them....
I've never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenence,  perhaps I should....
They had a variety of cars there as well.

Initially I was more intrigued by the sign that the had out the front... I am not sure who they are afraid will protest, or  how they can possibly enforce it.

Happily for me there was an exhibition in the show room of a Honda 'ideas' competition.  It seems as though it was open to students across SE Asia  as well as Japan.

Here are some of them.

A cyclo that will turn old items into new items

A super dog that can do everything from choosing ripe fruit at the supermaket to being a companion when you break your leg.

A cleaner for outer space

It's a great idea to get primary aged kids thinking about the future and giving them a forum for expressing their ideas.

This is an old story - I was waiting to put pics in - it was the same weekend as we went to Meiji Jingu.

Do it at home!

The subways and JR invest considerable money in educating the public on correct train manners.  The slogan on the posters below. 家でやろう  is 'Please do it at home', it could also be translated as 'Let's do it at home'.  Hmmm... I don't think I will philosophise too deeply about this, but it's curious that being drunk to the point of passing out in the door way of a train, or vomiting in the carriage are considered comparable with putting on make up.  Either is fine, just do it at home, not in public!

NO!!!! don't do it at home either!! 

Well done JR

JR has become more convenient.
I have always been appreciative of the subways having signs that list each station for the train line and which carriage to be in for easy connections to other lines, as well as  for escalator and elevator access.  I have often complained that JR don't do the same.  Someone has heard my complaints!
JR have introduced these signboards for the Yamanote loop line that runs in central Tokyo, which  I assume (hope)  means they will be introducing it to other lines eventually. (To be fair to JR though, there are usualy a lot more stations on a JR line compared with a subway line.)

Simple things make me happy :)

The photo was taken on my mobile, will endeavour to replace it with a better one.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas eve, I'm just home, having finally....  managed to find something for Hiro.
There is a great sense of achievement in that.  The shops were chock full of people. Queues for Christmas cakes - in Japan it means a strawberry sponge - see below were in places more than 70 people long; people winding up and down stairs, through shops and even across roads.  It's hard to imagine there could be anything worth queuing like that for..  From the look of the department stores food floors in Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ebisu, where I was today, you wouldn't imagine that  Japan was in recession. The clothing and living floors were not nearly so busy.  Although Japanese celebrate Christmas - mostly with the afore mentioned Christmas cakes and eating chicken - in particular KFC (turkey--> chicken--> KFC), serious gift giving has not been adopted.  Christmas in Japan is often compared with Valentine's day in the US.   There are enough gift giving seasons in Japan without adding Christmas into the equation!

I went to Ebisu in my Christmas shopping quest.  It's a very upmarket area of Tokyo, where the proportion of (Japanese and foreign) English speakers would probably be much higher than average in Tokyo. Nevertheless it reminded me that English in Japan tends to be decoration.    Eternal lights that end mid Jan.... hmmm....

Enough of the Grinch and Scrooge Merry Christmas!!

I pinched the Christmas cake from a blog  -

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Pork and Veg stirfry

A very quick and easy dinner

thinly sliced pork  (we are on a pork eating campaign since the Japanese govt. has intervened with extra subsidies to keep pork farmers afloat - for the non pork eaters that read this, chicken would work reasonably well, beef may be ok too.)

1 carrot - I cut it into kind of rectangular thin slices rather than circles or julienne, but whatever is ok
1 negi (the green onion between a leek and shallot ) regular onion would work so would half a leek
1 bunch of nira - garlic chives I think - flat leaved grassy green vege

3 Tbsp soy
2 Tbspn mirin
1 sake
3 Tbsp white sesame seeds
grated ginger

Marinate meat in seasoning
Chop veges
stirfry veges in sesame (or vege) oil  - add carrots first, then negi and nira till half cooked.
push to the side
cook meat
mix together with veges,
pour remaining seasoning on top,
cook till done.

the picture is in the food challenge section.

Three cheers for the gaimusho

Vicky's visa was issued yesterday.
I am very impressed with the gaimusho.
They have gone out of their way to be helpful at what is no doubt a very busy time of the year for them.
Arigatou gaimusho!
Vicky arrives Sun.


Last night's left over niku jaga  (no photo)
and yesterday morning's  left over miso soup with rice,  egg, grated daikon, green onions added.

(I eat sans egg)

No leftovers left!! yippe !

Friday's food

Friday was a lazy breakfast, a slide into the weekend.  Hiro was home late Thurs, so the amount of food needed is less. 
Carried over from the day before

Daikon pickles
Simmered pumpkin.

Fresh Fri rice and soup

Shiso seed pickles - from Hiro's mother (should have been on the table yesterday... they last quite a while.)

Natto (fermented beans - a Japanese breakfast staple - bought from the supermarket as is - very sticky)

Seaweed (I forget which seaweed this is - wakame I suppose -  it's sticky and goes on rice - not my taste.. a texture thing, again straight from the supermarket.)

Spinach (the korean sesame recipe that I posted the other day except I forgot to put the onion in, ;( )

Miso soup

I passed on the natto & wakame had some yoghurt instead.

Friday night

Nikujaga - a meat  and potato, onion, carrot, pea stew kind of thing that I forgot to take a picture of....
Left over rice.

Thursday's food

 My food challenge has come somewhat unstuck...  I have a cold, little voice and am feeling sorry for myself; furthermore Hiro is going to be away a few days this week for work.  I started  last Thurs taking pics and will put up what I have.

Breakfast is the main meal of the day and is much more like dinner food than most people eat - even here.  Hiro gets home too late and at times that are too irregular to have dinner as the main meal.  The aim of breakfast then is to have food that is able to be pulled out quickly - often I make it the night before - and is suitable for leftovers for evening meals.  I also try to get as much nutrition as possible into breakfast - Hiro usually takes two  onigiri (rice balls) for lunch.  Depending on the time he gets home he may eat a bit or a lot. I eat before he gets home.

Thursday breakfast


1. Pork and vege stirfry (cooked the night before)
2. broccoli (cooked the morning before)
3. Mystery chinese vegetable (cooked the morning before - I don"t remember the name of it -  it was the first time I have bought it)
4. Asparagus shoots with dried bonito flakes
5. Daikon pickles which Hiro's mother makes and sends from time to time.

Non left overs
1. Rice
2. Miso soup (left over veges - brocoli stalk, negi (kind of half way between a chive and leek) The picture is of the miso soup in progress)

pork and vege stirfry

daikon pickles

miso soup - the makings

brocoli and mystery veg - put into the one container as left overs

the mystery veg in its previous incarnation

asparagus shoots with dried bonito flakes
Thursday dinner - Hiro was home quite late.  I made some simmered pumpkin and there was left over rice but most of the pumpkin was left over for Fri breakfast.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


Last night while I was intently trying to read about the formation of Israel in a children's world history book in the Akarenga library, I received a phone call from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanting to verify that I had indeed invited Vicky to come to Japan and  requesting further documentation. (The fact that I am written on Hiro's place of residence certification - juminhyo - is insufficient proof of my address - foreigners have a different registration system...) They also wanted tax certification  verfied by local govt. and not Hiro's employer...

I decided to take the documents into Kasumigaseki - where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located - rather than have it sit in post boxes for the day around here - they had to be originals not emailable/faxable.  It's a quick trip in - one train and a bit of a walk and I was there in less than 30 mins.  The gaimusho, as it is called in Japanese, is like Fort Knox.  There are two very narrow entrances and no-one passes without a pass.  I suspected it was probably like so - there are quite fanatical political groups in Japan - mostly on the extreme right these days but historically also on the extreme left  (notably the Japanese Red Army) that are violent and disruptive in intention.  A number of key places are targetted by rightwingers - in particular the Russian and Chinese embassies but also seemingly the MOFA.  Police are on 24 hour guard and have barricades to pull across in the event that a right wingers truck tries to drive past with loudspeakers blaring xenophobic obscenitites (like 'give us back the northern islands, you Russian swine...' )   A couple of times I have seen it near Hiro's work - police that are for the most part bored senseless by being on guard spring to action to block the way of offending vehicles... and the offending vehicles eventually retreat.... quite childish of them really.. and an awful waste of resources..

I asked one of the guards outside MOFA if there was some internal mail system that I could put my documents into... Apparently not.. but there was a PO directly opposite. I handed it over the counter and the documents should be there in the morning.  The gaimusho official that I spoke to yesterday was very pleasant and it seemed like a formality to have the documents rather than any particular concern with the application.

What could have been an irritatingly uneccessary trip into town turned out to be a great chance to see Hibiya park in autumn glory.  Hibiya park has the imperial palace to the north, the staid government area of Kasumigaseki - devoid of cafes, convience stores, izakaya, karaoke and all other typical signs of life seen in a business district -  to the west and south, and the vibrant shopping, hotel and head office area of Yurakacho to the east. Hibiya Park, a Europan Park in part modelled on parks in German,  along with Ueno park would be Tokyo's most egalitarian: there is no entrance fee, there are 'hiroba' - large open spaces that are often used for political protests and rallies, homeless mix with suited bureaucrats out on their lunch break, people flock to paint pictures and uniformed school children play there at lunch.  There is a library within the park confines, but it's not very quirky and not very obviously Japanese - attributes which tend to put something on the tourist circuit.  Despite being on the fringe of tourist ville it never seems to have many foreign visitors.  Though it's probably deservedly not on the top 5 tourist spots in Tokyo it's a pretty park that is a pleasant contrast to the hussle of central Tokyo.

I will attach some pictures tomorrow - my camera is acting like it needs to be put out to pasture - a trip to Canon might be in order.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The challenge of cooking

Cooking can be fun, it is much more likely to be fun if you are cooking for people. If I'm cooking for myself I would most likely have toast and vegemite, or toast and a poached egg or make a pot of dahl and eat it over a week.  In China and in Thailand I happily went a year with cooking nothing more than  a cup of tea. Literally.  Every day choosing from the choices on offer in the street carts... utter bliss....
Here street carts are not a viable option - mostly because there are none around here but also because they are not healthy, not tasty and not economical.
And so I cook.
But cooking is a challenge.  It used to be that basic shopping baffled me.. I couldn't read Japanese when I came here and it was so easy to make mistakes shopping.  Mistaking salt and MSG,  (Almost as bad as in China when the drinking yoghurt was clearly labelled in English letters MILK... no wonder the students didn't like their hot chocolate....)   not being able to tell pork from beef, butter from margarine,  apple juice from apple cider... (a couple of times I drank apple cider on the train assuming I was drinking sparkling apple juice.... cringe..... )   Cooking with different appliances was also a challenge - initally there was no microwave/oven.  Having bought one though the instructions were in Japanese and I kind of worked it out by trial and error.  It's only in the last 2 months that I have realised that the oven has a button that tells you when it has heated to the required temperature....  A rice cooker is indispensible in a Japanese kitchen, but again it requires reading to get it right - hard rice, soft rice, soupy rice, medium rice, plus the time settings so you can have it cooked when you wake up in the morning.
The biggest challenge of cooking these days is cooking food that is easy to eat as left overs.  Hiro is working crazy hours again.. as always... an early night is 10.30 but can often be 12.  If he is home before 10 it means he is getting a cold.  So ideal food is food that is ok to eat today, but could also be ok to eat the next day or even the day after.

Next week I will record what I cook and report - it might stimulate me to be more imaginative as well....

Monday, 7 December 2009


Last night we went to Karaoke.  I used to go from time to time, usually in Ikebukuro or Shinjuku, when we had Lonely Planet Thorn Tree gatherings but haven't been for ages, and never with Hiro.  Karaoke is part of my speaking better Japanese campaign - it's good for reading and pronunciation practice.  I don't know that many songs in Japanese, but songs here do seem to be designed for karaoke.... something like Bob Dylan or even Bruce Springsteen very definitely is not.   To sing a song at karaoke you actually need to know the tune quite well, since they don't necessarily play the melody line.... fortunately I know a couple reasonably mostly because at  the last school I was at, the staff had to sing at the end of year assembly.   (My first year I assumed we had to memorise the song so spent several hours by myself at Sugamo karaoke place trying to remember the words - cringe... even more cringe worthy... - I felt like such a doofus when everyone carried the song sheets on stage....)

Karaoke-kan (karoke places) are not like Australian karaoke where it is really drunk extroverts / narcissists/ attention seekers competing at the local pub for the microphone and everyone unconnected with the singer rolling their eyes or trying to grab the mic....   Japanese karaoke you have your own little room, own tv set, own microphones (2 per room), you can order food and drinks. (or hmmm. hmm. hmmm whisper.... smuggle your own in.....)

The song I know best in Japanese is tsubasa o kudasai  which probably translates literally as 'I'd like some wings please'. (the one I tried to memorise)...  It was a hit here in the early 70s but has remained a solid favourite - the kind of song everyone knows.  I was surprised to hear Susan Boyle singing an English version of it, Wings to Fly,  on the radio the other day, though apparently the song is only on the Japanese version of the CD.    I have pasted tsubasa wo kudasai below.   I looked for a version with subtitles, for the benefit of anyone who can read Japanese.  The video clip is of the Japanese soccer team and their effort to get to the last world cup.
The singing doesn't actually start till about 35 seconds into the clip.
(The youtube censors got to it, this is a non subtitled version.)
The English version by Susan Boyle (the one I had embedded originally has been taken down from youtube, if it has gone again you can probably find it with a search of Susan Boyle Wings to Fly on youtube)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Reflections on Meiji Jinju and the internet

At Meiji Jingu were were given an information sheet (Bilingual English Japanese) that explained very briefly the history of Meiji Jingu, a topic naturally ingtriguing to me ;)  The information sheet says it "first belonged to  Lord Kato and later to Lord Ii during the Edo period (Edo period = Tokugawa shogunate era = 1603-1863). " The passage continues "In the reign of the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912)  it was passed into the Imperial estate under the supervision of the Imperial Household Agency....."

2 major land ownership changes and no explanation why......

The imperial household agency are in charge of the shrine and they are never known for transparency or pursuit of historical truths.

From my limited knowledge of Japanese history I had some theories but wanted to see what the internet had to say.  A google of 'Kato, Ii, Meiji Jingu"  turns up a plethora of shallow tourist sites and photos sites that either have repeated verbatim the information guide from the park, or more likely have just copied and pasted another shallow information internet site.  sigh... 

Though I have found nothing specifc regarding the transfer to Lord Ii presumably  it occurred as a result of the battle of Sekigahara, arguably the most defining battle in Japanese domestic history, a battle that resulted in Japan being united under the Tokugawa shogunate and the capital being shifted away from the traditional power centres in the west - Kyoto, Nara - to Tokyo.  Although Lord Kato, of Satsuma (south of Kyushu Island) was on the winning side at the Battle of Sekigahara, he had previously been a supporter of   Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the nemesis of the Tokugawa.  When Lord Kato died, rather than succession of feudal lands passing to his son,  the entitlements were cancelled by the Tokugawa, and presumably some were passed to the Ii. (There seems to be historical debate on the reasons for the entitlements being cancelled, but connection to Toyotomi seems plausible.)

As for the change from the Ii to Imperial control, again I have found nothing specific related to Meiji Shrine. Lord Ii Naosuke, like many of his forebears,  was the Tairo (kind of like a feudal primeminister).  He signed port treaties with the Americans, but was assassinated in 1860.  His son Naonori also was a supporter of the Shogun, but during the Boshin wars which resulted in the restoration of the emperor and dismantling of the Tokugawa shogunate, Naonori switched to the Imperial side.  Lords who remained loyal to the Togukawa had their lands seized.   Lords who supported the emperor in many cases turned over land to the emperor voluntarily. Naonori married someone who was part of the Imperial family, though I am not sure whether his Tokyo holdings were given over to the Imperials govt. or whether they were taken forcibly.  Ii Naonori went on to study in the US and UK and became part of the Meiji govt.

Further research is in order...research beyond plagiarised internet pages.

Friday, 4 December 2009

If you are not Russian and are reading this...

be thankful.

Vicky, a good friend and former colleague from Thailand is coming to visit on 20th Dec.  It's very exiting.  In the time I have been here I have had friends and family visit -   Mum and Dad, Tony & and Jo, E&P, Madeline, Nicki, Robert, Kate O'B, Tristan, Greg, Scott coming through Narita. I am much luckier than many foreigners I know here in that regard.  It's always exciting.  Vicky coming is no exception.  She,  Irina (another Russian colleague) and I would periodically go out in BKK.  It was a welcome relief from some of the admin idioscyncracies at the school.

Being Russian though and coming to Japan... what a nightmare.
It appears easier for  people from the 'terrorist hotspots' of Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
In order to come a Russian needs a local guarantor who supplies
- proof of residence from the local govt.
- a photocopy of each page of his/her passport
- a certificate of employment (from company HR dept)
- a statement from the company HR dept to say how much tax he/she paid in the last financial year
- a letter explaining the purpose of the visit
- a letter guaranteeing the expenses of the visitor
- proof that they visitor is known to the invitee - emails, photos, cards, letters etc
- an itinery itemised for each day in Japan

For the Russian visitor
- bank details proving they have means
- proof of employment
- a return plane ticket
not sure what else....

Talk about a pariah state....
I think China, Philippines and the ex Soviet Union have similar conditions - perhaps other countries too - but these stand out on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.  The concern probably has more to do with prostitution... or perhaps the fact that Russia and Japan have terrority conflicts and have not satisfactorily resolved WWII issues....
The documents are in BKK now, lets hope they are processed quickly....
At least she's not North Korean...

Autumn leaves @ Meiji Jingu inner garden

These are photos from Sunday, taken at the Inner Garden of Meiji Jingu.  We wandered through the back streets from Gaien Mae through the streets back streets of Omotesando where there is an eclectic mix of Tokyo government housing, green 'living city' space, upmarket boutiques and cafes, salons and the ever ubiquitous drink vending machines, through vibed Harajuku where anything goes particularly if it makes people look twice  - Alice in Wonderland outfits, fluffy green ugboots,  school uniforms, foreigners dressed as samurai.  People in their teens and twenties hang out in Harajuku - there is lots of cheap chic or pseudo chic, Hiro equates it to a market in HK or BKK without the acrid smell.  I think he's missing something though....
But anyway, I digress. We walked to Meiji Shrine Inner garden which is next to Yoyogi Park, between Harajuku and Yoyogi stations.  The chaotic hubub of outside disappeared walking through the gates.  The 500yen (AUD $6) entry seems to keep the numbers in the park to little more than a steady trickle - despite the fact it would have been one of the best days of the year in there.  It's one of perhaps two remaining parklands in inner Tokyo that have nature in a somewhat natural form.  It is defintely constructed, but it's more like walking through a park of nature trails rather than through a garden.  I guess in autumn, when the leaves are the focal point this may especially so.  In the summer time focus shifts to the colour in the iris flower beds which are surrounded by lush greenery. 
The photos are a bit disappointing, but you get that, the battery on the camera was almost flat which seemed to stop the focus working properly. That said though, you can still get some sense of the park.

Korean spinach

This is quick and healthy and good, not to mention a good way to use up extra spinach in the vege patch.

a bunch of spinach
6 or so little green onions - chives?
sesame seeds
sesame oil
garlic (I don't use garlic mid week)
cayenne pepper

Boil water, add spinach, wait 30 seconds - use a timer, pull out, rinse thoroughly.
Squeeze, rinse, squeeze, rinse
Chop green onions finely
Chop garlic finely
Mix spinach, onion and garlic together with 1.5 tablespoons of soy and one tablespoon of sesame oil.
Add 2 generous spoons of sesame seeds, more if you'd like.
Mix through

Serve as a side dish.