2008/02/28

Aka Yo!

I was biking home from work tonight with my colleagues, and we came to a stop signal (the red one, pictured left). As is customary in America, we looked to see if there were any cars, and since there were none, we crossed the street. On the other side of the street was someone waiting for the light to change. He was quite upset that we had skipped the light, and called out to us "aka yo!" (It's red!) I had completely forgotten that the custom in Japan is always to wait if someone else is waiting. But, if nobody is waiting, you're free to take your chances. Safest is to wait, but I'm still used to the American way of crossing the street.

Coming up: Lots of plans for the weekend! A party with co-workers and clients; hanging out in Kagawa with a new friend; and a solo trip to Dogo onsen in Matsuyama. Stay tuned!

2008/02/25

A Day in Marugame

This weekend, I took the JR Train to Marugame. I went to Zentsuji temple, which has a lot of special features. For 500 yen ($5) you can go to a special hallway downstars in total, total darkness. It's even better if you close your eyes to avoid any ambient light. Touch the left side wall with your left hand, and silently repeat the chant that they tell you before you go inside. It is a bit disorienting to be in total darkness, which adds to the spirituality of the experience. I felt that I was outside of my body while doing the chant. Eventually, the hallway leads to an inner sanctum, where you can pray. For anyone who is interested in Buddhism, I suggest it. After you come up from the passageway exit-side, leave your shoes where you left them before, and take some of the leather slippers for walking around. Directly outside, you can see what is photographed here, and much more.

There was another outdoor temple, whose name I cannot remember. So I'll just tell you a story about it. It's up in the mountains, so you have to walk up and up countless steps. Maybe about 500 or so, winding through trails and trees. The birds were calling. As we walked up, a Buddhist priest was on the way down. As we passed, he simply said, "good day" and we said "good day" and each kept walking. There was nothing particularly special about that moment, and yet there was. For the rest of the day, everyone we passed said good day. Before that moment, everyone had walked silently. After walking to the top, seeing the incense pot and offering some prayers, we walked down as well. Then I went to Marugame Castle.

video

The view from the top of Marugame Castle's grounds is definitely worth it around sunset time. Toward the end of the day, we slogged up the steep slope to get to the top. The castle itself is closed until the end of February, but there is a great 360-degree view. A man was jogging up the slope as I stood there and the breeze swept by. Anyway, the important this is: what would life be without dinner?


So I went on to Ikkaku, the well-known chicken restaurant. (This character on a lit blue slab is their sign.) I have to say, it fully met my expectations. As we walked in, the greeter bowed, and led us directly to a table. There are two choice, either hina-dori (young chicken) which is soft and easy to eat, or the oya-dori, which is much more chewy, but in many people's view has more flavor. I got the oya-dori and chowed right into it. Hold the bone with a napkin and use chopsticks to help yourself eating it right off the bone. I also ordered a rice dish that came with cubes of chiken in it, as well as a side of soup. (I think that was the tori-meshi, from memory.) The restaurant's reputation holds: it was absolutely delicious, and wonderful way to end the night.

2008/02/23

Takeo Kikuchi - Japanese Fashion

Takeo Kikuchi is a Japanese designer who is part of the top scene in Japan. I found one of his boutique shops, TK, below Okayama JR train station, in the endless shopping mall there. If you need something really cool and spiffy for a night out in Japan (or anywhere), then I highly recommend TK. The prices are not cheap, but one can probably afford a single shirt or hat, etc., even on a budget. It's important in Japan to be conscious of your image, even more so than in America and elsewhere. So, if you want to fit in and be cool, I suggest starting a collection of fashionable clothing for informal situations. Here is the link to Kikuchi's webpage.

Also certainly of note is the brand A Bathing Ape, led by Japanese fashion star Nigo. And, their official website. Don't spend too much!

Yakitori in Takamatsu

I have found a great place for yakitori in Takamatsu. It's called Daikichi, which I think means "best fortune" or something like that. It's small -- what we would call a "hole in the wall" in America -- but the flavors are delicious and the atmosphere is very nice. I suggest trying tsukune and o-nigiri, as well as various chicken parts. Let me give you some background on what yakitori is. The chef will put small pieces of meat on a thin bamboo stick and grill them with sauce right in front of you. Use your chopsticks to slide the pieces of meat off of the stick and onto your small dish, and then to eat with. When you have finished, put the bamboo stick into the small jar on the counter. Eat the o-nigiri (rice ball) with your hands, because it is cooked to have a crisp shell and is easy to hold but difficult to cut with chopsticks. If I can get hold of the exact address, I'll post it, but I would say it is not a far distance from another excellent restaurant called Surfers. Both are not a terrible distance from "Number One Hotel." Any taxi can take you right to it from downtown Takamatsu for about 500 yen ($5). Expect to spend about 1200 yen ($12) at the restaurant, unless you feel like trying lots and lots of food. English is somewhat spoken at Surfers by a man named Jiro, but it is not spoken at Daikichi, as far as I know.

In related news, the New York Times today published an article about the Michelin Guide's Japanese edition. The guide had to adjust its rating system because it found so many excellent restaurants. However, one response was, basically, "Japanese food was created by Japanese people, so how can we rely on a bunch of foreigners to tell us what is good or bad?" Hmm, good point. Perhaps a Japanese writer could solve the problem. In any case, I'll continue to review places that I like, even if it is from a foreign point of view.

Made It to Takamatsu!

Well! I have made it to Takamatsu!! It's great here. I feel really relieved, because everyone is so nice. The food is delicious! I have found a great yakitori restaurant. I'll find out the name. It's on my bike ride home from work (yes, I bike in a suit and tie)... And on monday, I'm going to some mountains that are connected by a wooded bridge. It sounds so nice so I'm really looking forward to it. Photos from that to come!

2008/02/16

I wonder how they see me...

People told me before I came to Japan that I would probably be stared at quite a bit. That's because I'm a foreigner, or gaikokujin, living and working in Japan. In places like Tokyo, it's quite common. But as one gets farther out into the countryside, naturally, it's less common. At first, I didn't really notice. But today I did notice quite a few people looking at me. Actually, one person seemed to be scared and ran away. Hmm. Am I scary? Haha, I don't think so. But there are reasons for the confusion. I heard that in Japan, men should wear dark colors. So, I wear a black coat and black shoes. When I finish work, I am often still wearing my black suit pants. And it's cold now, so I bought a hat, which is black. Uh oh, that's a lot of black... So that's part of it. I am also about a foot taller than most people, and yes, I'm one of only a few Americans in Okayama right now. I guess I should make more of an effort to fit in and look as friendly as possible. I just wonder, what kind of appearance would make people more comfortable? Any ideas?

Anyway, last weekend I went to beautiful Korakuen, the garden shown in this picture. It was so nice, and the weather was great. You can see from the image what a nice place it is. I had a really good time walking around and taking photos. I wanted to share this image with you all. If you have a chance to visit Okayama, I really suggest going to Korakuen.

Coming up: I have found so many great restaurants here. There are two in particular that I will write about in the near future.

2008/02/09

A Note from Okayama

Here is a letter I wrote to my dad. Hi dad, ah you know how international keyboards are. i guess i hit a button that turns it into a japanese font of english letters, unreadable. but anywayi had my first day of training and it went great! everything here is really convenient as hell. cant explain it hardly. this net cafe is cheap and swanky and has jazz playing, a huge library of books to read, they will bring me various foods if i want etc. i have found some great izakaya restaurants, those quaint kind of mom and pop pubs and they also serve ridiculously good food. i havent had a bad bite since i got here. although i cant find an apostrophe. tonight i had kara-age, which is really tasty fried chicken with mayo, but the english barely does it justice. it just melts in your mouth. at lunch i had eel, grilled fresh and properly, not like the kind that comes in a bag frozen. at the train station i was able to buy a lunchbox of sushi wrapped in cherry blossom leaves, also outstanding. took the bullet train from the airport to get here. my own computer cant connect to the internet yet so i cant send pictures yet, but here is kind of like a japanese version of manhattan i guess. kind of like times square but suddenly there are old fashioned streets with nice architecture, and its kind of divided into districts depending on what kind of atmosphere you want to walk in. japanese language is coming back to me as i am using it every day for all kinds of transactions. ordering food, finding a place to buy a fingernail clipper, and so on. it is really remarkable already, and i think as i get to takamatsu and more in the countryside area i will like it even more. its not too hectic here, not overwhelming, but i still like the countryside. i have the day off tomorrow so my friend is coming to visit, except she might be coming down with a cold, so we:ll see about it tomorrow. then starting monday the training will be more rigorous, though the trainer is a really nice guy, ironically named the same as my younger brother. wearing a suit for this job gives me a real sense of pride. actually having this job does too. i feel like some kind of international specialist,and according to my visa stamp, that is what i am considered here, so i feel really good emotionally as well. i do miss everyone a little already, but all i can say is you guys gotta get your butt over here some time. it rules! tell me whats new on your side. id like to read more from you too. talk soon!