Wednesday, February 27, 2008

pwetty sea bream

Even though there are things that annoy me about this country, I know I will miss certain things when I leave Japan. One of them is their packaging and how everything looks so pretty and presentable. Of course, I do not advocate using unnecessary material just for presentation sake if they are going to be thrown away without being used.

Japan has long known that this is the cause of the ridiculous amount of rubbish thrown out every year. That's why they implemented a rule to separate garbage. Each prefecture, and even district have their own arrangement as to how this is done. I had a poster near my door when I was living in an apartment in Niigata, and 2 separate bins to remind me. Here in Tokyo, I have 3 bins. Even though it was a hassle in the beginning but it's a habit I wish Malaysians would cultivate too.

But having said that, here are some pictures of ordinary looking items which might have just been packaged in a simple plastic bag back home, but given the extra touch here in Japan.

An aquamarine coloured box with a simple fishy on the top, given as an omiyage* from Akiko.

The front side, with "Sea Bream" written on it. Brand is probably Bluno (or Bruno?!) What could be inside, I thought. Sushi??

Ah, like those biscuits we eat during Chinese Mooncake Festival. How cute.

One of those fishy in an elegant box. It might have gotten a less royal treatment if it wasn't in Japan.

I ate off the head of the fish. I must've missed Fish Head Curry when I did this. Inside the sea bream, there was some creamy custard-like sauce. Nothing spectacular actually Quite yummy. The packaging made it even more yummy. It is said that the Japanese eat with their eyes.

*omiyage - momento or keepsake, usually candies or edibles brought back to be shared with colleagues. Omiyage are sold everywhere in Japan, making it a big business, especially in this culture of "giri", or obligation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

discovering edogawabashi

It has been a krazy week at work. My colleague suggested that the boss had slowly but surely changed. I guess deep down he's still the nice boss I've been telling everyone about, but because of multiple projects by a major client he's termed as "the cash cow", he's been quite demanding as of late. I can go on and on about many other things which has made me a tad unhappy about work, but a friend consoled saying that it was better than having no work, which means the company is doing well enough for me to be employed!

Anyways, because of a stressful work at work (and more to come!) and since I have been out for the past few weekends, I decided to chill out yesterday and try to catch up on my Japanese lessons. I did have some invitations for karaoke, art gallery, shopping and dinner but with the strong winds (some said it was typhoon, and several trains had to stop their services) it was even more reason to stay at home.

I have been toying with the idea of taking proper Japanese lessons at a school. Doing it on my own for someone like me with little discipline (it was better when work was not so stressful!) is beginning to not sound like a good idea. If I can get myself into proper classes or at least do it on my own regularly, I might just try for JLPT 2*. So I asked my housemate Adam where his previous class was. Since he was going out anyways, he decided to show me the location. We walked along the Edogawabashi park area which was near our house, and gosh, it was so windy! We kept getting dust in our eyes.

Some flowers were beginning to bloom, but because the trees were still bare and dry, it felt like late autumn. I'm not sure if these were sakura but they looked pretty enough to be. It was my first time going to the park even though I've stayed here for months. Everytime I think about walking here, the cold discouraged me! But since I had no choice but to do it now, I decided that it was quite a lovely park. Adam said it would be even better when spring comes, when the whole stretch of skinny trees along the river bloom with cherry blossom flowers. I can't wait!

Along the Shin-meiji dori road, there's the Toden Arakawa line, operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation. It's the only streetcar line remaining in Tokyo. It was originally part of a more extensive network and due to development, many had to be shut down. The remaining line is a merge of 2 lines - line 27 (Minowabashi-Akabane) and line 32 (Arakawa-Waseda). The station which we saw was the terminal station, Waseda, near the University of Waseda.

I was surprised to see this in the middle, as a divider between the Shin-meiji Dori street. Apparently this line only runs along the less well-known places compared to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi and Omotesando. But for those who are interested in taking a leisurely ride along the more older parts of Tokyo, this would be a good choice. If I'm not mistaken, it only charges a flat fee of Y160! That's pretty cheap. The furthest I get on that fee is 3 stops on the subway. It was a sight to see this, because the other streetcar that I've hopped on were those in Hiroshima, and Hakodate in Hokkaido island.

After locating the language school, we said goodbye as Adam went on to the library while I was getting hungry and my rice was waiting at home for me. Without anyone to annoy distract me, I took a slower pace on the way back and even visited the Four Season's Hotel's much talked about garden. Saw this cute barricade set up near a mini construction site. The Japanese have a way of making everything "kawaii", they actually put up some snowmen and pine trees on one side, and some figurines of Santa Claus on the other, with blinking lights too!

There was a quaint garden near the Hotel, and I was wondering if it belonged to someone as some trees looked pretty abandoned. Or maybe a bit out of place. This one looked like it had some banana trees in them, but I don't remember banana trees being more than 2m tall! Or have I left Malaysia too long to remember? Still, what are banana trees doing in Japan? If I make friends with these people, maybe I can have the leaves for nasi lemak next time.

Friends have told me I should visit the Four Seasons Hotel Chinzan-so since it's so near my house. I didn't give it much thought because Japanese hotels have been known to be so tiny, and the area I'm living is more residential than city, so it probably wasn't that impressive. But boy, was I surprised to see how much space this hotel took! It probably composed of at least 10 separate buildings interconnected, and from their famed 17-acre gardens (couples take their wedding photos here), you could see that this hotel was doing quite well. Even the reviews were good!

Since it was a weekend, there were some wedding receptions going on at the same time. There were 2 couples taking pictures near the terrace, another hosting their luncheon at the tea house, and probably more inside the hotel grounds. It really was what looked like brisk business, I was so tempted to walk inside and capture more pictures, but decided I would come back again in spring for more shots.

I've seen this in Niigata before, think they do it to protect the trees especially during winter. From afar they looked like elegant works of art, but they're actually covering a tree each. Since there was no one around where I was that time, I couldn't ask. These must be really fragile or prized trees for having such delicate protection around each one of them.

As my tummy got hungrier, I decided to just end the walk there since I'm sure spring would be a better time to take pictures here. Near the end of the walkway in the park, I saw some colours crying out for attention out of the left corner of my eye. Gold and purple pansies on a flower bed, they've certainly seen better days. So I set the camera on timer and sat down to pose. But a kitty came out from nowhere and wanted some attention too, and this is the result of me trying to protect my camera from being mauled by the kitty!

*JLPT - Japanese Language Proficiency Test, lowest level being 4, highest being 1

Saturday, February 16, 2008

cny + v-day + housewarming2

The first housewarming party was really fun but I was tired out from it. That was early winter last year. I thought I'd never do one again. But since I didn't have any proper Chinese New Year do or did anything for Valentine's, I decided to do an all-in-one CNY + Valentine's + Housewarming2 party this time around. Besides, I have been on skiing trips for the past 2 weekends, spent quite a bit so I thought I should stay at home this weekend instead.

I've always wanted to invite my uni friends over, but our schedules were always clashing. I told myself even if some people can't make it this time, I'm still going ahead with this. And I even invited some non-uni friends to mix the group up a bit. Since it's still winter, something hot and spicy like Thai curry would be suitable. This was my first time cooking red curry, so I was busy researching the Internet and asking Thai friends how best to use the paste I had.

I was also thinking of making my own dessert this time. My Vietnamese guest had left me some tapioca seeds(?), and I was planning on making some sago-like dessert since I would have some leftover coconut milk from the curry. I was also trying to get her on MSN to get some advice how best to cook it, and if I could cook it the night before to save some time.

While thinking about what to cook this time, Watanabe-san expressed his concern that perhaps I should buy more food. He was saying the previous time the portions weren't enough. But I did tell ALL my friends that I was cooking for tea - So portions then were tea time portions, not lunch, not dinner! But apparently he was expecting a proper meal and told me to buy more this time.


As if to hint that I'm not a good cook, he said he invited his friend, Saisaki-san to help me with cooking.


Saisaki-san invited us over for New Year's before, he's a good cook, but I didn't need anyone to help me cook. (I think Watanabe-san thought I needed the extra help since I need to cook extra this time) But I didn't need someone to give me additional pressure expecting some authentic Malaysian food. Besides, this is my own party, so I should know how much to cook for, and what to cook, and would like to do it myself. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a professional cook, but I would very much like to host my party myself.


Since he has kindly offered to sponsor some of the food, meant well, and I can't ask him to dis-invite Saisaki-san, I decided to just bear with it, and make the best of it.

In the end, I decided the menu would consist of :
Appetizer - Tacos & salsa sauce
Main dish - Thai red curry, black pepper chicken wings (yes, it seems to be a favourite!), stir fry green vege (forgot the name), with rice
Dessert - Almond jelly dessert with peach.

I made the almond jelly last night and let it set in the fridge. Went for groceries shopping this morning, marinated the chicken wings and continued with the red curry. Since it was my first time, I was quite cautious and kept hoping that it would turn out nice. Furthermore I didn't have a good experience cooking with coconut the last time. And I only had one little carton, so couldn't afford to waste it. It's not like I can just go out to the store and get another. I had been saving this particular one for months, waiting for the right occasion and dish.

Watanabe-san and Saisaki-san did help me a bit. I saw they were really sincere in wanting to, and looked bored just looking at me do everything. So I asked them to help peel the potatoes and carrots. :D

Due to the varying schedules of my guests, they came in turns. It was a good thing too, since we had limited space in the kitchen. The people who had never taste proper Thai curry loved it. I thought the creaminess was just superb, it has been some time since I had something like that, but wish it was more spicy. Another friend who used to work as a cook commented that everything was good, but that I could improve on my chicken wings. I'll take his advice the next round and see if it really adds to the taste.

My Canadian friend said this was the best meal he's ever had in Japan. :D Must be because of all the variety of the dishes and I kept feeding him! Saisaki-san wanted to know the recipe for the chicken wings. I said, it was a secret recipe, just like KFC. My guests were so lovely, they helped wash up after that. Before they left, I gave them each a little Valentine's gift, something to wrap up the night.

I'm just glad and relieved it's over. Was good! Oh, I just remembered, Saisaki-san asked if I could host a dorian (durian in Japanese) party next time! Dorian?! I don't even eat that fruit, much less know how to buy or open it. Where am I going to find dorian in Tokyo? I've seen one in Osaka but it had a price tag of Y6500! Well, he did offer to sponsor the fruit, but I really have to find someone who eats dorian. That person is not me :p

Thursday, February 14, 2008

blog bites 080214

1) After reading Charis' and Eewei's blogs about CNY, I feel more and more un-Chinese! I almost forgot about CNY until family & friends called from home to wish me. So ya, no CNY posts here.

2) However, I did have an enjoyable time skiing for the past 2 weekends. I only realised how blessed I am to be able to do that, coz even some friends from other 4-season countries don't have that kinda facilities even though there's snow there too.

3) I just went for my 3rd visit to the dentist today. Realised that I was on a root canal treatment during the 2nd visit, and found out that i have SIX more visits to go! Why do things like these in Japan take forever? My M'sian friend had 13 treatments for his root canal!! And the best part is, my insurance doesn't cover this. I've already forked out Y10,000, Y5,000 and Y2,000 for the past 3 weeks. And oh, the dentist doesn't speak English, so I've had to use my electronic dictionary along on all visits.

4) Today is Valentine's Day. I thank God for my darling family & friends. Even though you are all back home, I still think about you every now and then, missing you and wishing I was at home instead. But I also thank God I am here, a place where many are trying to get a job and earn a living. No, I'm not here for the money coz I don't think it's that worth it :)

5) Planning to have a belated CNY + Valentine's + housewarmingII party this weekend. Already invited some friends, but don't know if I'm in the mood to actually pull it off! :D But I should. So let me go off and plan what to cook this time around :)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

winter (re)treat

I just came back from another skiing trip :D Well, not really. But it involved skiing. Last weekend I was with friends from the GAP church for their winter retreat. So this was more, er, spiritual!

Since I couldn't get off work early like the previous week, and was even held back until about 8pm, I had to rush through dinner and only managed to get the 2nd last bullet train to Karuizawa. I wanted to wait for another grrl, Tomoko so that we could go together as she was also working till that time. But in the end she decided to just leave the next morning. The rest had already met up at church and left together in the Goto's minivan.

A very chilly -11degrees was the coldest I've ever endured. I've never even seen that number before anywhere! I should've taken a picture of the temperature when we passed it on the way to the wooden cabin that was to be our lodgings for the retreat.

Karuizawa is so different from Niigata. It was on a mountainous area, was a bit nearer to Tokyo and therefore was a favourite with the upperclass who built their summer resorts here. There were lots of Western-styled houses, pine trees everywhere and big cars or minivans on the roads. I could have mistaken this place for America (even though I have not been there, but I've been fed enough of American TV).

The snow is also different - it's dryer, due to the elevation and its distance from the sea. Snow in Niigata is wet and is softer, very good for skiing. But when I was skiing in Karuizawa, with the wind blowing in snow on my face, it felt like a million ants were attacking my face at one time. I wish I bought myself a pair of googles! That must have been the reason why I fell so many times.

The water is also different. Compared to treated water in Tokyo, the Karuizawa water is so clean and sweet, you can actually drink it from the tap. Well, water in Japan is generally clean enough to drink without boiling, but those that flow from the taps here must've come from the mountains that it felt so refreshing. Even Tomoko commented that her skin felt different - better.

Skiing was just one of the activity, most of the time we had sessions in the KFBC (Karuizawa Fellowship Bible Camp). We had to make our own breakfasts, but a very delicious dinner was prepared by the caretaker of the camp. And just in case people got hungry, there were lots of snacks and instant soba for the tummy. Needless to say, we were quite well-fed at the camp.

Instead of the hotsprings that I was expecting I had to settle for the ofuro instead. The communal bath which is the Japanese shower. Ofuro is basically soaking in a tub of hot water after cleaning oneself. These are usually found in homes - something I wish I could bring back to Malaysia. They have the technology to keep the water at about 40degrees while you soak away your stress, and some even have jacuzzi effects for the added luxury.

It had been a long time since I went for a church camp proper. Since this was a small group, it felt like I was in a CF camp again. It was pretty much laidback and everyone took turns to volunteer and take initiative. I felt so much at home that I even showed up for breakfast in pajamas. They were surprised and even said their impression of me as a manager changed. Erm, hello, if I'm working at home, I'd be in pajamas the whole day!

Though they were a small group, I was excited and inspired by their zeal for God. There were so many things they wanted to accomplish, but everyone's so busy and had to juggle so many responsiblities in the church. And everyone agreed that we should start with prayer. That without prayer and a strong foundation, it would be quite worthless to do any of the activities they think could make the church grow.

Frankly, I still have not even settled down in any church (and that's another story too), but I really enjoyed the fellowship with this bunch of people. They reminded me of the passion of the group of people I served with back when we were starting the CF in MMU. We were the pioneering batch, and we had to battle with the authorities to legalise our CF, and until today it's still an underground organisation, but we've come through leaps and bounds and God has been faithful.

We talked about why Japanese churches are not growing, why missionaries to Japan have been struggling so much to report back to their home churches about the numbers of Christians, and why the Japanese is considered the toughest group to preach to next to the Jews. I had gained an deeper insight to this land where the culture and its people still baffle me. I will never fully understand the why's of Japanese people, but I know that it's in dire need of a revival.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ski+hot springs = blissful weekend!

What a weekend! A break I really needed. Even though it wasn't too long ago that I came back from my Christmas-New Year's in Malaysia, some recent events coupled with work have made me feel like I've been working for years already. And in reality, it's not even 6 months yet!

Through a very long elaborate plan twisted and turned, I managed to leave the office early just in time to catch the 5pm bus on Friday to Urasa. It's too complicated that it will bore you, so I shall skip details and show pictures of the wonderful snow in Niigata prefecture.

I had been missing the snow since summer last year. But I missed it more during winter here in Tokyo because the snow that fell, the very little that did, was so miserable that they melted in minutes. I missed the tonnes of snow that pile up, blanket the mountains and cover the rice fields, that make Niigata a winter wonderland.

My uni friends reported that this year round there was more snow than before. But not as high as the previous year when they had about 3m+ of snow! In fact, for the past month or more, it has been snowing quite steadily almost every day that it kinda felt miserable for them. But for those who were in their 2nd year and wanted to make the most out of their final months in grad school, they went skiing and snowboarding almost every weekend. When I hear their stories, I wish I was back in school too!

The trip back was another of catching up with old friends and some newer ones I made from my last trip. Again, I wish I had more time. But Saturday was such bliss. It was really excellent weather, for me at least. This was my first time after a year that I've seen this much snow and it brought back memories of the freezing mornings where I had to drag myself out of bed for the 8am Japanese classes and wondering why I put myself through such torture back then!

Memories and thoughts kept me quite sleepless Friday night and I just wanted to snuggle back into bed the next morning and miss the ski trip I had come for. But the thought of flying down the slopes pushed me out, and so there I was back at Hakkaisan Roku Ski Resort almost exactly 1 year after, for IUJ's Ski Day. It was good seeing familiar faces, and that familiar slope where I had polished my skills tumbled down countless times and tasted snow.

Funny thing was because of all that nostalgia, I was afraid that the span of 1 year would have erased my skills. I felt like a beginner all over again as I tried on my ski suit, put on my ski boots and buckled them up and fitted them into the ski. As I made my way near where some of my expert friends were giving lessons to the beginners, I thought maybe I should humble myself and admit that I have forgotten how to ski and just learn again.

But after going down the little slope about twice, I was getting bored and said to myself, surely this must be like cycling. Once you learn, you can't forget. So with some trepidation, I dragged along another beginner friend with me and took the lift up the mountain. I had not even fully warmed up nor did enough practice runs to be confident that I can go down as I did before. But I came all the way from Tokyo and I wasn't going to be tied down at the learner's slope all day.

As I stood there looking down the slope after the lift had dropped us, I thought, this is it. I was already up here, there's no other way to get down but to ski. So I pushed myself slowly with the pole, and got the hang a bit, and before I knew it, the legs suddenly knew how to bend, the feet knew how to turn and the body knew how to balance itself. The memories came back, I was skiing again. It was such bliss. I already knew how to ski, that was always in me, I just needed to push myself.

Before long, I was up in the intermediate and advance slopes. The mini advance slope probably looked like 45degrees and once was enough to give me the jitters. If it wasn't for my fear of height, I might have gone up again. But the intermediate slope provided more thrills. I had gone through that path before the last year but with much fear. This time I had more fun. If "Wheeeee~~~" wasn't so difficult to say for a long time, that would have been my expression all the way down.

That skip trip was followed by a good dip in the hot springs in nearby Muikamachi town. This was another thing I had sorely missed after coming to Tokyo. There aren't many natural onsens here, and the man-made ones charge exorbitant prices. They're also too far from where I live, so the hassle would have just cancelled out any effects the onsen had. But anyways, the hot springs are such a godsent. This is the best therapy after a long day, after exercise, to release stress and get the blood circulation going. I've mentioned this before, but if there's one thing I could bring back to Malaysia, it would have to be the onsen. Too bad it's too hot and humid back home.

We ended the day with a good meal of healthy nabe, somewhat like a hotpot of steaming soup with meat & vege. I wish every weekend was like this. The only downside was that I woke up with sore muscles the next morning and if this wasn't so expensive and far, I'd really do it every weekend!