Moving Day

Hello. Welcome. I’ve moved the blog to digitalchopsticks.com. Please come visit me there and keep coming back. I’ll try to keep the blog as updated in the new home as I did here in the old home. Also check out pictures, albums and news on my new facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/digitalchopsticks . Thanks!

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Ramen As Food For Real People

When I was in college I bought stacks of Top Ramen noodles. Ten cents each if you waited for a sale–usually every two weeks. I’d buy 20 of them if I had the cash, stack them on the kitchen table and prepare my menu. Monday Ramen with cheese, Tuesday Ramen with Tobasco sauce and cheese, Wednesday Dry Ramen and beer…

I confess I was driving without a license. My usual prep was to break the ramen brick into pieces like a saltine cracker, throw in boiling water, put a Kraft Single on top and mix in the flavor packet. Delicious, sure. Worthy of Martha Stuart… But not ramen.

Ramen is not college food. It is real food. In Japan people travel miles, through rain and snow, for a bowl of ramen. Ramen fads sweep the nation faster than flu epidemics. Right now Tonkotsu ramen, with its oily soup and MSG is rocking the nation. Before that it was buttery Hokkaido ramen stacked with green onion, corn and MSG.

On the roadside you can find ramen mega-restaurants–pleasure domes of oily soup and noodles. Every region has their well-known chain with giant parking lots and smoking sections as big as Little League baseball parks (without the ventilation, though).

I don’t like Tonkotsu ramen much. It’s just too oily. But I love the old school flavors, Miso, Shio and Shoyu. You can still find them around, you just have to know where to look. But if you’re looking for Kraft Singles, Tobasco sauce and beer I only know one place you can get it. But please call first. I’ll want to make sure I have enough Top Ramen on hand.

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Nagoya’s Mean Streets

Back in LA, I ran across more than a few idiots on the freeway. I flipped them off and yelled “Where’d you get your license asshole, Walmart!?” through my closed window. After all, in LA you never know who has a gun…. or who will be your next boss. A lot of people in LA think they have to get wherever they are going before you. Maybe they do. Bu if it’s a soccer mom in a Yukon or Tahoe, just pull over and let them pass. You’ll never win that fight.

LA Drivers don’t suck as much as New York or Boston, or even Chicago, but they do suck. So I thought in Japan I’d be a little safer behind the wheel. But, I moved to Nagoya. Nagoya has the highest traffic fatality rate in the entire nation; a honor that they earn every year! They even beat Tokyo, and Osaka. This is no small feat. Nagoya’s urban area population is a mere 10 million (2.5 million in the city itself) compared to Tokyo’s 40 million and Osaka’s nearly 20 mil. Yet Nagoya drivers consistently bring the city to the top of the auto fatalities category. Imagine how many people would be living in this city if we actually had some decent drivers.

So what’s so bad about running a few lights? Sure running red lights is common–even when the car in front of you stops. Just pass that “Safety Sam” in the opposing lane. It’s an art form. Also a minimum of 5 cars can turn left after the light turns red, but the opposing traffic doesn’t wait so it’s a little like weaving a giant basket.  And drivers happily use the opposing traffic lane to pass each other, regardless whether the lane is already occupied or not. Usually the car behind you is so close on your tail that if you stop suddenly for that idiot Taxi, the guy behind you will be sitting in your passenger seat. Did I mention idiot Taxis? I’m no rocket scientist, but I’ll throw this hypothesis out there: If taxi drivers stop watching TV they drive better.

But it’s not all we drivers’ faults. Nagoya has the longest signals on the planet Earth. If you get stuck behind one, you have time for lunch and probably a coffee and dessert. No wonder we’re all pushing through those lights. We know that we only have so many years to live. The Nagoya traffic planners are all laughing at us as we wait at the red, our cars idling and casting a grey pall over the city while on the cross street no car has passed for the better part of an hour.

When at last your light turns green, you should proceed with caution and make sure you’re not on a one-way street. They’re randomly hidden throughout the city like inside jokes. Sometimes there’s a sign, usually too rusty to read and hidden behind a tree. Other times your only hint of a one-way is the car barreling toward you, in the same lane. When you find yourself in this position don’t panic. Do what the locals do. Play chicken. Remember there’s no shoulder. The houses come right to the edge of the road. The chicken is likely to end up in somebody’s living room. So don’t be the chicken… Just step on it and cross your fingers. And remember your mother’s advice. Don’t leave home with dirty underwear… you never know when you’ll be in an accident!

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Nagoya Dome Relay Marathon

I still don’t understand why they build domes. Nowhere feels more like nowhere than the inside of a dome, and for that reason the Nagoya Dome doesn’t suck any more than any other dome in the known universe. Unless you try to squeeze a 12,000 runner relay marathon into it. Then it sucks more…

That’s what happened last weekend. Within minutes of the Marathon start the dome smelled like a giant gym locker room with wall to wall astro-turf. The baton pass (or sash pass as it happens in Japanese relays) took place in the Chunichi Dragons’ centerfield, and the course passed through the back door into the parking lot. Two kilometers of hairpin turns and random meandering through the undersized dome parking lot and the runners returned to the dome through the visitors bullpen to pass the sash to the next in line.

While it is likely true the the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona is, in fact, a safer event than the passing of the sash in Nagoya Marathon, the running of the bulls is missing one key safety element than is present in the dome: there’s a guy with a bullhorn repeating, “Please stand off the race path.” Of course few noticed as they trampled over him fighting for position to take the sash from their team’s previous runner. Smart teams like us brought big signboards and held them above our heads to stand out from the fray. It worked pretty well, but the teams that hired thugs and goons to push people out of the way fared better. Next year we hire the thugs.

Despite these trials, we did pretty well this year. Nobody knows our actual time, but at least everybody on the team finished their leg of the race with nothing more than a few bruises, one broken arm, a collapsed lung and one case of PTSD. Next year we hope to do better.

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The largest bowling alley in the world

Homer Simpson, Fred Flintstone, Howard Cunningham, even George Jetson. These are the role models of my youth, the faces of authority, and the men who made bowling cool. Weekends spent at Leisure Lanes took on real significance knowing that these men shared my passion for rolling a 13 pound black and silver swirled ball into the gutter.

Much has happened since those days. My passion and dream of entering the pro-bowlers tour diminished as I faced the challenges of the real world. I stopped going to the bowling alley. Apparently a lot of people did, because bowling alleys have started disappearing like banks after the Lehman shock.

So imagine my youthful exuberance to discover that the world’s largest bowling alley is still live and well and living in Nagoya. The Grand Bowl Nagoya is 162 lanes of pure pin-setting bliss. The venerable attraction boasts three full stories of lanes, snack bars with cardboard food, pro shops teaming with amateurs, shoe vending machines, and an information center–all in a building that has as much ambiance as the local Sokol Hall, or your church or synagogue’s multi-purpose room.

I didn’t waste a moment. I typed the address into my GPS and I was on my way to Nagoya’s southern Midori Ward, where crime is a little  higher, the buildings are a little older and the folks don’t go much at night. Once inside the three story parking garage of Grand Bowl Nagoya I locked my doors and went inside.

“Three games for 18 bucks.” That’s what the woman at the information booth suggested. That’s six bucks a game. But an individual game is $6.50 so you do the math. I have no idea what the going rate is, but it seemed like a good deal so I signed up. I selected my shoe size at the AutoShoeser vending machine (pictured above) and found a suitable ball. Then I bowled my three discounted games. The truth about bowling is: it isn’t a boring as it looks, but it is pretty boring. I guess if you’re good at it, it could get pretty exciting, but that’s something I’ll never know for sure. I’m guessing I’m never going to get pretty good at it. Especially If I keep up this rigorous training schedule of bowling three games per decade. Still how many bowlers can say they’ve bowled at the largest bowling alley in the world. Chances are, unless you live in Nagoya, you haven’t joined this exclusive club. But next time you’re in Nagoya don’t let the opportunity pass you by. I’m up for bowling a game or two… or even three.. anytime, so just let me know. It’s already in my GPS — you just pay for the gas.

Posted in Life in Japan, Places to visit, Sports | 2 Comments

Eisa in Toyota

The painful truth is, if I tie a bandana around my head and strap a drum to my body I just don’t look cool. I’ve tried. And that’s what separates me from being one of those guys who can pull off anything. In fact, I don’t really pull off much at all. I look awkward just walking down the street–even with sunglasses.

That’s why Eisa is so cool. The premise is to strap a drum to yourself, dance around with about thirty other people in a big field, all the while banging the drum, in unison, in time with the music … all the while looking cool enough to cause fleeting fantasies of divorce to cross the minds of the audience members. Sure, you have help. The drums are a striking red, and big enough to hide even my spare tire. The traditional garb is fashioned of bright yellows, reds, blues and greens of flowing cotton and silk cloth. It’s pretty hard not to look cool under these conditions. Unless, like me, you dance like a pop tart. When I do Eisa it looks more like dominoes. That’s why I just watch.

Last week in Toyota City the yearly Aichi Prefecture Eisa Matsuri was held. It’s an all day affair — 8 hours of Eisa Taiko in the August heat. By the end, most of the audience has liquified into a pool of Orion Beer. But, if you can stand the heat and the booming drums, it’s an amazing show. The atmosphere is so alive and so friendly you might feel for a moment like the people fanning themselves next to you are actually close friends. That’s the way it often is at Okinawan events. People just start liking each other more. Even if they’re not actually Okinawan. Even if, by day, they’re the typical angry, pushy and remorseless subway jumpers that define my morning commute. Here at the Eisa Festival everyone is friends again. And that’s the way it ought be.

Posted in Art in Japan, Japanese Society, Life in Japan, Sanshin, Travel in Japan | Leave a comment

Matcha Choco Parfait

Matcha looks like cocaine trafficked into Boston on Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s not instant tea, it’s actual tea leaves pulverized into a fine, bright green powder. It’s bitter and expensive, but cheap compared to cocaine… and more legal.  Mixed with lukewarm water, it becomes the frothy tea of those ancient Japanese tea parties where nobody talks, and everyone kneels on the floor and gets foot cramps: The Tea Ceremony.

Fortunately, matcha isn’t just for tea ceremonies anymore. You can also find it on the Matcha Choco Parfait, pictured on the right. The Matcha Choco Parfait doesn’t cause foot cramps, but addiction is possible. It’s one of the signature sweets of Nana’s Green Tea, a tea house found here and there in Nagoya. Nana’s is a cool hangout… the kind of place I’d love to bring back to LA someday. But the parfait? Groovy. Even with the corn flakes. (look closely. Yes they are corn flakes. Cornflakes are a parfait tradition in Japan.)

400 years ago there was a guy who became famous throughout Japan for making tea. It wasn’t like his tea was particularly rare or delicious or anything, he just looked cool making it. So cool, in fact, that after watching him make tea, everybody wanted to make tea like him. They signed up for classes. They even followed him around and made a school.

The guy was named Sen-no-Rikyu. He didn’t invent the now world famous Sado Tea Ceremony, but many say he perfected it. His tea of choice was matcha. He would whisk up that bitter powder into a froth, and pass it out to all his guests. The guests were usually high level Samurai or members of the Imperial Court. They paid him a lot for his tea.

I wonder what Sen-no-Rikyu would think of the Matcha Choco Parfait. At Nana’s one parfait costs about ten bucks. But Sen-no-Rikyu could afford it. He had connections.

Posted in Drinks, Food, Life in Japan | Leave a comment