Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kebabs and Milk Bars

As some of you already know, I’m in Poland for a month or so. Not sure how long I will stay. The idea is to get all my paperwork sorted out as soon as possible and return to Japan.

In the meantime, I am prancing around Trójmiasto (literally: Tricity - Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia on the Baltic coast), working (how did we ever manage to survive in the days before the internet?), investigating shoe stores and kebab joints. Because, hey, a girl’s gotta eat. And shoes? You can never have enough shoes… Trust me, I know.

The other day I was lead to Alanya, which supposedly had the best kebab (or “kebap” as it says on their sign) in Gdansk. The rumor was true, it was indeed good.

Alanya kebab

Alanya may not a Turkish crew working behind the counter, but the meat is good, the flatbread fresh, and the baklava - as sickeningly sweet as it should be. The place very blasphemously offers its customers plastic forks and paper plates. And just for that alone I’m going to be a faithful fan. As much as I love good kebab, I love even more those places that understand that sometimes getting garlic sauce all over your brand new suit is not a good idea.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for authenticity, but if you’re not going to give me a paper plate and a plastic fork, then at least have the decency of providing me with a wet wipe, OK? This is something that a lot of “real” Turkish kebab joints in Trojmiasto still need to learn. Because right now they’re losing customers. What can I say? Some people would rather stay clean and eat at McDonald’s. Or at Neptun’s.

Yes, I finally managed to find the famous Neptun Bar Mleczny (Neptun Milk Bar) on Dluga Street. Last year during my weekend in Poland I briefly tried looking for it but evidently was too high on pickles and red beet salad to notice I was walking back and forth in front of the bloody place the whole time.

Neptun bar

While I haven’t tried anything on the menu yet (too stuffed on kebab meat), at least now I know where it is and can visit anytime I want. And lo and behold, the place even has a webpage. (Yes indeed, how did we ever manage to survive in the days before the internet?)

NOM NOM NOM, as the Lolcats say…

PS. Update.

I tried the chow at Bar Mleczny Neptun, and really, can't recommend the place at all. Vile, tasteless and overpriced. You can totally find better food elsewhere, and for a lot less money. So don't believe all the hype and advertising. The place is so not worth it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Engrish Menu - in Poland

So, you open a Japanese restaurant. You want to give your customers a truly Japanese experience. The decor is appropriately faux oriental, sufficiently kitschy to awe, yet mild enough not to provoke a gag reflex.

The food is equally carefully thought out - it's just this side of "authentic", after all, who's gonna know that Tom Yum is not a Japanese dish? And those who do know won't eat at your place anyway. Chances are, they can make better Japanese food at home than anything you could offer.

Even the name - Kyoto - is supposed to provide an aura of suitably pompous ambiance.

But still, you strive for those truly Japanese touches. And in order to make it a 100% quasi-Japanese experience, you even decide to translate your menu into Engrish.

Wasted algae

Now, this is what I mean by really "Japanese"! Brilliant! You can't do any better than that. Engrish! (click on the image to enlarge)

This is an actual menu of an actual Japanese restaurant in Poland. It's even posted on the restaurant's website.
I haven't been there yet, and frankly, I'm not sure I want to. Luckily, the place is rather too far away for a casual visit.
The menu is indeed quite hilarious, though. It's as close to "real" Engrish as one can get without having an actual Japanese person write it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

At the zoo

The zoo in Utsunomiya is a sad and pitiful affair. It’s heart-breaking and tear-inducing and if you love and care about animals, it’s best you stay away.
I made the mistake of going in and regretted it pretty much as soon as I walked through the ticket gate. But since at 1000 yen per person, the entrance fee is not exactly cheap, I was determined to see what I was paying for. And that was my second mistake.


I despise zoos in general but do realize they serve a purpose when it comes to breeding and preserving near-extinct species. However, those establishments are few and far between, and the miserable place in Utsunomiya is definitely not one of them. Here, the animals look old, sad and diseased. The lions and tigers broke my heart and made me cry. The tiger suffering from a skin infection, with open sores on its hind leg was especially upsetting. I wanted to run out and never come back.

So why did I stay?
A.    Husband had the car keys and I didn’t fancy sitting in the parking lot all day.
B.    The cherry blossoms there were simply amazing.

Yes, the only redeeming feature of the zoo in Utsunomiya is the simply mind-blowing sakura, of course only during the cherry blossom season. The flowers are more than worth the price of the entry fee.

Sakura ferris wheel2

We risked our lives and took a ride on the rickety ferris wheel (200 yen per person) and if we could we’d be going round and round until all the trees lose blossoms. But since we had two hungry cats waiting for us at home, and I ran out of 100 yen coins, it wasn’t really a viable option.

Castle sakura

Despite all my hatred of zoos, at the end of the day, I had to admit that the zoo had probably the most beautiful sakura in all of Tochigi. Will I return there? Only during hanami and only if I don’t have to look at the animals. And you can bet your hamster that along with spending 1000 yen for the ticket, I will make a donation to the WWF (and I don't mean the World Wrestling Federation here).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sushi Around the World - Some Assembly Required

Sushi purists and traditionalists, especially those foreign ones who don't really know what Japanese people eat at home and get their knowledge mainly from cookbooks directed at gaijins, will get their kimonos all up in a wad over this post, but hey, I'm here to annoy, among many other things.

The way we have sushi at home is similar to how we'd eat tacos in the US. You grab the stuff, pile more stuff up, fold it or roll it up and chow-chow. Except instead of taco shells or tortillas, we use nori sheets.

Sushi table 3 square

All you need is a bucket of sushi rice (or two if there's many of you) and some raw materials - whatever you like, personally - I'll eat anything except shrimp and salmon. Really, anything goes, just pick your favorites.

It works like this: get a sheet of nori, scoop some rice onto it, add topping, fold or wrap, dunk in sauce and enjoy. No piddling with maki rolls, no diddling with nigiri. Fast, easy and convenient. And fully customizable, so even the pickiest eaters should be satisfied.

Cutting octopus 2

Just make some miso soup to go with it, and voila - dinner is ready.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Nikko Station - In Pictures

The return to Nikko after 35 years was a bitter-sweet experience. I could see that the man was disappointed. It used to be HIS station. He was its mascot. He played here while his grandfather worked. And his grandfather was the Nikko Stationmaster.

Nikko station 1

The pond in front of the Stationmaster’s Office is no more. In its place there’s an ugly dump, hidden from view from the main street by a police box. The station itself looks like a renovated version of its older self. And its self is pretty old indeed. The whole line is pretty old. It was inaugurated in 1890 and the service has been running more or less continuously until now.

Nikko sign

But the signs are brand-spanking new and the dragon on the ceiling in front of the entrance is a recent addition.

Nikko station dragon

Most people coming to Nikko from Tokyo use the Tobu line. I can’t blame them. It’s more convenient and much cheaper than the awkward JR connection via Utsunomiya.
So unless you have a JR pass, or happen to live nearby, or got stuck overnight in Utsunomiya, or even worse – in Kanuma (ugh, I shudder at the thought), I really can’t see any reason why any foreign visitor would bother with the JR Nikko line.

On the train to nikko

This is a local line for local people.

But it seems that plenty of gaijins do indeed take it. And in the evening, the Utsunomiya bound train looks and feels more like a New York subway than a train in Japan. If you can hear less than five foreign languages being spoken at any given time, you know it was a slow tourist day.

Tourists at the station

Personally, I prefer to drive to Nikko on route 119 (aka Nikko Road). When sakura is in full bloom, this is a most magnificent drive.

Route 119 2
Shot while driving, so please excuse the blurriness. It's not easy to handle both the steering wheel AND a Sony Alpha at the same time. Luckily for all of us, the traffic was unusually light that day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cool Gifts - Made in Prison

Prison cell phone holder Are you tired of the same old gifts from Japan? You know, the kind that all gaijins buy at the airport and think that people back home will like - tacky yukatas pretending to be kimonos, chopsticks, overpriced tea sets, fans that are in reality made in China and so on…

This time I thought I’d try something new. Actually, I didn’t even think, it just sorta happened.
We went shopping and run into a massive market (inside our local shopping mall) selling items made by inmates doing time in various Japanese prisons.

The selection was simply mind-boggling, from really fancy coffee tables, to pillows, to kitchen stuff, to quite nice paintings and carvings of Hokkaido nature, to soy sauce (yes, organic and made by prisoners) and udon noodles. There was even scented soap, which totally creeped me out, especially since I just finished “The Reader” earlier that day. (By the way, I hated the English translation of this book, it’s stiff and inconsistent.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any T-shirts. So, instead I got this cute cell-phone holder, which I’m using as a case for my make-up compact. Yes, I got it as a gift, but then decided to keep it, because I am THAT selfish.

The holder was made by kids doing time in juvie in Hakodate. I want to contact this prison’s administrator and suggest they start making T-shirts and tote bags. What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hello Kitty Bearing Arms

This is just so wrong on so many levels that I’m not even sure whether I should laugh or cry.

My husband quickly nicknamed it the Columbine Kitty, but I’d stick to the much gentler NRA Hello Kitty. What can I say? Kitty got herself a rifle. Because that’s one thing that up until now has been missing from her seemingly bottomless accessory drawer.

Kitty got a gun 2

No, I didn’t get this at an NRA convention, I don’t frequent those. I found it at a gift shop in Nikko. The name of this particular Hello Kitty cellphone strap style is “Onsen (Hot Spring) Mascot”. And up until now I had no clue whatsoever you were supposed to take your rifle with you when visiting onsen. Gee, you learn something new every day. Thanks Kitty!

This Kitty also has Petit Kitty with her, sadly, this little fella, even though he looks like he’s been hunted, doesn’t have any bullet holes in him. Shucks, he’s not even bleeding. But that’s nothing that an application of a red market couldn’t fix. What was Hello Kitty doing with Petit Kitty at that onsen with that rifle? I don’t wanna know.

The National Riffle Association should buy these in bulk and distribute them to all of their card-carrying members. And if they wanted to corner a new rifle totting market – also to school-age girls everywhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oya Temple and Heiwa Kannon

Is Oyaji (Oya Temple) worth a visit? Well, if you somehow found yourself in the vicinity of Utsunomiya (though I can’t really fathom why anyone would), then why not? As long as it’s not a Thursday, you could hit both the Oya Stone Museum (closed on Thursday, unless it’s a public holiday – then it’s open) and Oyaji down the road and the giant Kannon practically across the street from the temple.

But chances are, you’ll never make it to Utsunomiya, so no worries.

OK, what’s so special about this temple? Nothing much really, except that it’s older than most countries in the world – it was founded by Kobodaishi (a really famous guy) in 810, or so. The temple is on a pilgrimage circuit in the Kanto region, so there are always people coming and going. There’s even a bus parking lot in front of it.

Entrance to oyaji

view from the street

So, what’s inside? A surprisingly meager collection of rock carvings, however one of those rock carvings – Senju Kannon happens to be the oldest of its sort in Japan. This Senju Kannon is the one with a whole bunch of hands, each holding an eye, which supposedly represents the desire to save mankind. Yeah, right…

Anyways, there are ten carvings altogether: Shaka Sanzon (Three Buddhas of Shaka), Yakushi Sanzon (Three Buddhas of Yakushi) and Amida Sanzon (Three Buddhas of Amida). And Senju Kannon makes ten.

Temple proper

temple proper

What else? You can’t take pictures inside the temple, but the grounds are OK. There is a miniscule museum there with an ancient skeleton (11 thousand years old) on display and some of the oldest earthenware in Japan that was dug out nearby. Again, no photos allowed.

Temple garden

There’s also a nice garden. Quite lovely during hanami (cherry blossom viewing season).
Price to get in to Oyaji – 300 yen. From April to October open from 8:30AM to 5PM, from November to March 9AM to 4:30PM. There’s also a gift shop and a stinky toilet. Some information in English available. Do not attempt to take photos inside the temple – there are security cameras everywhere. When I was there, a Chinese family got asked to leave for videotaping inside.

A short walk up the street from the temple there is a gift shop selling all sorts of oya stone handicrafts. The proprietor is a grumpy old man with the personality of a constipated alligator.

Gift shop

Turn right by the shop (if coming from the direction of Oyaji) and you will find the huge statue of the Heiwa Kannon. This one is not ancient. It was carved out after WW2 and is dedicated to those who died in the war and to world peace.

Oya kannon and me

that midget in front of it - that's me

The place is rather sad looking during winter months, but come cherry blossoms, it really blossoms, hehehe… And the best thing – it’s free and there are no opening or closing hours.

It has picnic tables and toilets nearby and on the day we were there, it was quite crowded. It’s a favorite spot for locals to view cherry blossoms. And they were quite lovely indeed.

Oya kannon 1

Why am I telling you all this? Simply because the tourist office in Utsunomiya is as useless as two tits on a bull.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Oya Kannon

The weather was so nice today and I wanted to go to Nikko. Don’t really know why, just got up and wanted to do it. Seems easy enough, hop on the train – the station is practically next door - and a few minutes later we’re in Nikko. Any moron could manage it, right?

But the bonehead I married decided he wanted to go to Oya instead. I told him what I thought about his idea (hint – nothing I can post on a PG blog) and gave in. We went to Oya. Turned out the Oya Stone Museum was closed today. Hahaha! Serves you right, bonehead! “I told you so” just doesn’t quite say it now, does it? But he thinks that aince we’re in Japan now, HE is the one who knows everything.

Eventually, we did manage to have an OK outing. The bonehead is still alive. And this weekend – it’s payback time – I AM going to Nikko. Rain or shine. With or without him.

Today, instead of the mine museum, we went to the Oyaji Temple (300 yen to get in) and hung out by the Oya Kannon (free). I'll write more about both places next time.

Oya kannon 2
This thing is huge, as you can see. But it's relatively recent. If I remember correctly, it was carved out sometime in the early 60s.

Yoshi on top
Disagreement about today's destination turns violent...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sakura 2009 - In Pictures

It’s that time of the year again in Japan. People go slightly crazy. Or not so slightly, depending on how you look at it. And this year, I have willingly joined them. Brandishing three different cameras (I drew the line at a tripod, though) the man and I took to the streets. We blended right in.

Cherry blossom cemetery

And then, in the evening we repeated the exercise by moonlight and carefully positioned flood lights.

Sakura night futara 6

Yes, it’s cherry blossom viewing season again. And I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve done both the day AND night viewing this year.

Cherry blossom red shrine 1

What can I say? I was bored. The weather was nice. I found a Nikon D200 in the storage room of the house where we’re staying (that's NO joke - a real, but very dusty Nikon D200). And the best part? Admiring cherry blossoms is free. That’s a very important part, because we’re totally and utterly broke.

Sakura night futara 2

And at least cherry blossoms are pretty, as opposed to, let’s say, traffic accidents or drunken salarymen. But when the sakura season is over, who knows what I might begin to stare at. The possibilities are endless, this is after all, Japan.

Cherry la park

And again at night:

Sakura night parco 2

All photos taken in Utsunomiya.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hanging out With Kimono Teachers

Apparently, there’s some sort of kimono show this Sunday in Tokyo. I’m not planning to go, because:

1.    kimono doesn’t interest me in the least bit,
2.    I’d rather sleep in and enjoy the quiet time when the annoying woman we’re sharing this house with is gone.
3.    I can think of a thousand different things I’d rather spend the hundred bucks or so (one way) than the shinkansen ticket to Tokyo.

Anyway, because while being in Japan and living in the house of a kimono teacher, you can’t avoid kimonos totally, last night I spent three hours watching the ladies prepare for the show in Tokyo this weekend.

What can I say, it was actually kind of fun. We were served traditional Japanese sweets and green tea. And I didn’t even mind sitting patiently seiza-style until my legs turned blue and numb – I had a bowl full of whisky-filled chocolate bon-bons at my disposal.

When I did get up, which I somehow managed to do unassisted, I was then used as a guinea pig to find out if it’s possible to teach a total beginner to tie an obi in less than four minutes. - Yes, it is. It won’t be a kimono show quality performance, but it will get the job done. Well, I didn’t tell them I wasn’t a total beginner. I even have a full kimono of my own, complete with tabi, zouri, matching purse and all, but after all those whisky bon-bons my skill was not what it used to be. And besides, I wasn’t about to make a complete fool out of myself in front of two licensed kimono teachers.

Kimono lesson

The lady to the left is a kimono teacher with all sorts of official certificates and over 30 years of experience. The lady to the right is a relative newbie, with only 5 years of teaching under her obi.

I promised them that one of these days I would really make an effort and learn the bloody thing properly. Or at the very least – attempt to learn the bloody thing properly.
Yeah, right… As if…

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tokyo Station Becomes Smoke-Free

I was watching on the news today how they were taking down all signs designating smoking areas at Tokyo Station. There entire station is now smoke free! And it’s about time if you want to know my opinion. Japan should finally get on with the program and do something about its ridiculously high smoking rates.

Next on the list should be restaurants – make them all smoke free. And if the salarymen want to poison themselves, they can do it outside. Hostess bars I don’t care about, so if they want to smoke in there, that’s fine by me. It’s their lung cancer, not mine.

My husband doesn’t smoke. Neither does anyone in his family. His parents quit ages ago, long before smoking was deemed bad for health. They don’t drink either, and in that respect, they must seem a bit unusual for a Japanese family.

Anyway, back to Tokyo Station. While the guys in hard hats were disassembling and removing all the smoking signs, I hope they also managed to take down this one:

Tokyo station info board