Monday, January 31, 2011

Ice Candle Ceremony at Auschwitz Peace Museum Japan in Fukushima

Last Saturday (January 29) we got in the car and took the Tohoku Expressway to Shirakawa - the first town in Fukushima prefecture, right across the border from Tochigi. Yeah, we could have taken the old route 4, but us being us, we were running late and besides, we live right down the street from the interchange.

Why were we heading to Shirakawa? To attend the Ice Candle ceremony at the very cumbersomely named Auschwitz Peace Museum Japan. Yes, it references THAT Auschwitz, in case you're wondering. (As if there was any other worth remembering...)

I wrote about the museum and its history here. And I wrote about last year's candle ceremony here. If you take a look at these posts, you'll understand the rant that is about to begin that much better.

The ceremony this year, hmmm... how shall we say it politely... wasn't nice. OK, let's be honest, it was terrible.

In 2010 we had a dignified gathering that made people think and question and ponder. And this year? A gospel choir (Aizu Mass Choir to be exact) signing "Jesus saves" and "Hallelujah". I'm not kidding. I wish I were, but sadly, I'm not. Inappropriate? Yeah, you may say that. Awkward? No, not really, since 99% of the people there had no clue what Auschwitz was and what had taken place there during WW2. In a typical Japanese fashion, they came for the food and free entertainment.

I'm a supporter of the museum. I understand that the museum is not only about Auschwitz, but also about peace. However, if you're going to commemorate something as somber as the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, you might as well try to make the entertainment at least vaguely appropriate for the occasion.

I want to get involved with organizing the event next year. I wouldn't want the ceremony to turn into a cross between a love and peace hippie-style festival and a Christian revival. But that's how it felt this year.

In addition to ice candles we also had milk-carton lanterns, almost 900 of them, set out in the field in front of the museum.

The best part of the evening? A lovely party after the ceremony, with plenty of food (all very yummy) and even more sake (and Kirin Zero for those who had to drive home).

Here's a video of the evening (I edited out most of the gospel signing, sorry).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Show Me Japan Vol.1 Issue 11

IMPORTANT: Please enter a link to a specific post on your blog, not a general link to your entire blog/website. Thank you!

Welcome to the 11th edition of Show Me Japan. 第11回 Show Me Japan へようこそ。

You can see previous editions here. 前回の”Show Me Japan” エントリーはここです。

FAQ page in English and Japanese is here. 英語と日本語のFAQはここにありますので、初めて参加される方は目を通して頂けると幸いです。

Below is a random selection of photos from last week’s participants. 前回の参加者中からランダムに選んだ写真を以下に紹介します。

The widget to enter your links is at the end of this post – below the photos. ”Show Me Japan”にエントリーする際のリンクを貼るウィジェットはこの記事の一番下にあります。

 To visit Japan Dave's Daily HDR Photo, click on the shrine above.

To visit Hiroshi's photoblog, click on the image above.

To visit Ichigoichielove's blog, click on the yummies.

To visit famous Loco's famous blog, click on the image above.

To visit David's (different David!) English-language blog, click on the torii.

If you participate in Show Me Japan, please be so kind and include a link back to this blog in your post. エントリーしたポスト中で “Show Me Japan”のリンクを貼り忘れてないか確かめて頂けると幸いです。バッジに “Show Me Japan”のリンクを加えて頂ければ至極幸いここ極まれりです。

Thank you for participating and have a wonderful weekend.

And now it's your turn!!!

Issue 11 is now closed for entries.
Have a great week!

Show Me Japan Participants

1. Ichigoichielove
2. David @ Ogijima
3. Japan Australia
4. kirsten
5. A Modern Girl
6. Badboy
7. David LaSpina/JapanDave
8. BiggerInJapan
9. BiggerInJapan
10. lina
11. kyushudan
12. Yoshi, Japan
14. Jay Dee in Japan
15. bird
16. bartman
17. Yuri
18. Muza-chan
19. Haikugirl
20. goodandbadjapan
21. Lens on Japan
22. TDP

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sparkling chocolate soda

Last year, when I tried the Sparkling Chocolate soda from Suntory, I really liked it. Really, really liked it. But as with most limited edition drinks - this particular one was meant for Valentine's day, it vanished very quickly and all that remained was a distant (and I admit it - very fuzzy) memory lingering on my taste buds.

So, needless to say, when I spotted it this week at a local supermarket, I was quite excited.
Yay! Valentine's Day is coming. Yay! Chocolate! And - oh no! Has it been a year already?

Of course, I immediately I bought a bottle and carried it home like it was my most precious possession. Well, one of them, at least.

Once home, I immediately drank it (of course) and then, just as immediately said "oh shit! what happened to my taste buds?" The cola didn't taste like I remembered it.

Yeah, it was still sparkling and very chocolatey, just like last year. But unlike last year, the 2011 version was also ridiculously sweet.

What happened, Suntory? What have you done to my delicious chocolate soda??? It was tangy and slightly bitter last year. Dark chocolate all around.

And this year you give me this nausea-inducing, coma-producing, sickly sweet garbage? How dare you??? I've been waiting the whole bloody year for THIS???
It can't be!!!

But, unfortunately, it is. It really is.

scratches another novelty drink off her list...

PS. I am sorry to say this, but... if your comment, or your signature, or your nick, or your whatever, links to any sort of for-profit website (and I don't give a rat's ass as to what it is - travel, on-line shopping, etc), regardless of how relevant or no-topic your comment is, IT WILL BE DELETED!!!

Unless I know you, or your business personally, don't even bother. If you want to have a text link on my site, please contact me via email. Otherwise, IT WILL BE DELETED. My decision here is final.
Thank you for your time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Freezing in Japan

It's amazing (and very confusing at the same time) that in such an advanced and high-tech country as Japan, central heating is still virtually unknown. That building insulation is not widely used. And that the native people consider this situation to be perfectly normal.

Oh, but we don't need those things. We have aircons blowing hot air, we have space heaters and we have kotatsu. Central heating is too expensive. And wall insulation is not suitable for our hot and humid summers. 

Those would be the typical excuses as to why you are freezing in your own living room (or bedroom) during winter. As if all those heaters didn't use electricity and weren't expensive in the long run! As if other places with hot and humid summers (DC and NY, hello!) didn't use building insulation!
And if you ask why houses in Hokkaido are properly heated and insulated (as opposed to those on the mainland), all you'll get in response is a blank stare.

Granted, even in Tochigi now the new construction standards do include either fiberglass or cellulose fiber wall insulation, but building heating concepts are still few and far between. Why is that? I really don't know. But I do know that none of the five building companies we went to (when shopping around for the one that would build our house) even suggested something as basic and elementary as a heat pump. What they suggested instead was cellulose fiber packs in the walls and super small slit windows to trap the heat inside during winter.

But I digress...

Our current apartment has no insulation whatsoever. It has flimsy single-pane windows and paper thin walls. When the outside temperature drops to about -4 Celsius, the pipes freeze (which means no shower in the morning, but then again, do you really want to take a shower when it's about 5 degrees Celsius in your bathroom?) and a thin layer of ice forms in the toilet bowl.

Yet that is still quite pleasant and positively tropical when compared to the house where my husband's 92-year old grandmother lives. I swear, it's warmer outside, even in the dead of winter, than inside her house. And actually, my in-laws' house isn't any better.

So how do people here stay warm?

There are many ways. You layer your clothes and wear a hanten. Mine is particularly unattractive, so I'm not posting any photos of it. But I'm wearing it right now, and I know, it's really disgusting, but when it's very cold, I sleep in it, too. I'm also wearing a sweater, a fleece, tights, fleece pants and a pair of heat-tech socks. And my feet are under the kotatsu.

Personally, I'm not a kotatsu fan. I consider it a total waste of space and electricity. WTF, just get a bigger heater so ALL of you can be warm at the same time, not just your lower half. But Dr Trouble is a stubborn traditionalist and it's HIS kotatsu, he bought it 20 years ago and it still works and he loves it. Our cats love it, too.

What's a kotatsu? A low table with a heating element attached underneath, like this:

You slap a fluffy comforter on it, then a table top, plug it in, and voila, your kotatsu is ready:

I think every Japanese home has one of those. What every Japanese home also has is a space heater. There are many different kinds and sizes.

Myself, if I have to choose, I prefer electric heaters. Oil heaters smell funny and give me nightmares that I'm going to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Even though CO is supposedly an odorless gas, then with the funny smell, I should technically be OK. Go figure.

And yes, you CAN boil water on your heater. It takes time, but hey, you're using the heater anyway, right?

The most standard heating (and cooling) option in 99% of homes is an aircon unit. In summer it blows cold air, in winter - hot. Luckily, we have one in our apartment (but sadly, not in the bedroom), because if a kotatsu only warms your lower body, a space heater makes you feel like you're sitting around a camp fire. So, even though aircon is expensive to run, I run it. A lot.

My in-laws also have a fireplace. It's a very high tech contraption that is almost never used. An occasional bird gets trapped in it every once in a while, and that's about it.

Yes, there's a bird in there, otherwise my cat wouldn't be so interested in it.

If you want to avoid the bird problem, you can always go the more traditional route of a fancy stove. Like this:

In addition to stoves, fireplaces, space heaters, kotatsus and aircons, you can also have warmlets (heated toilet seats), hot carpets, heating pads and a billion other things that I don't own.

Let's hope that spring is right around the corner...

(Not. I just checked the weather forecast.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Show Me Japan Vol.1 Issue 10

Yay!!! We made it to number 10! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Welcome to the 10th edition of Show Me Japan. 第十回 Show Me Japan へようこそ。

You can see previous editions here. 前回の”Show Me Japan” エントリーはここです。

FAQ page in English and Japanese is here. 英語と日本語のFAQはここにありますので、初めて参加される方は目を通して頂けると幸いです。

Below is a random selection of photos from last week’s participants. 前回の参加者中からランダムに選んだ写真を以下に紹介します。

The widget to enter your links is at the end of this post – below the photos. ”Show Me Japan”にエントリーする際のリンクを貼るウィジェットはこの記事の一番下にあります。

 Yes, only in Tokyo... Click on the photo to visit Floating Camera's blog.

Dang! What happened here? Click on the photo to visit Bartman's blog to find out.

To visit Kirsten's blog, click on the photo above.

Japanese Castle Explorer is a must-read for anyone interested in... yep, you guessed it, Japanese castles. Click on the photo to learn more.

All the way from Sendai, a blog by sixmats, click on the fierce guy in the photo to be taken there.

If you participate in Show Me Japan, please be so kind and include a link back to this blog in your post. エントリーしたポスト中で “Show Me Japan”のリンクを貼り忘れてないか確かめて頂けると幸いです。バッジに “Show Me Japan”のリンクを加えて頂ければ至極幸いここ極まれりです。

Thank you for participating and have a wonderful weekend.

And now it's your turn!!!

Issue 10 is now closed.

Have a wonderful week!

Show Me Japan Participants

1. Ichigoichielove
2. Japan Australia
3. A Modern Girl
4. Floating Camera
5. FuknWitU
6. DekoBoko
7. Yoshi, Japan
8. David LaSpina
9. Clarissa
10. kirsten
11. Loco
12. BiggerInJapan
13. lina
14. bird
15. Jay Dee in Japan
16. David
17. yousuke
18. Rubine
19. kirsten
20. kyushudan
21. Muza-chan
22. Haikugirl
23. bartman
24. Laura (tokyololas)
25. sixmats
26. kirsten
27. Show Me Cats in Japan

Monday, January 17, 2011

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

I am sitting in my living room, dressed in four layers of clothing (hanten, fleece, sweater and another sweater), tights, fleece pants and two pairs of socks and still shivering like it's January in Japan. Because it is. And to make it a truly miserable night, I thought it would be only fitting to torture myself even more and reminisce about the tropical goodness of Malaysia. Because that's where I'd rather be right now.

One of the places that the awesome Lina took me to was the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. To be honest, the only thing I knew about Islamic art was that it existed, so the visit was not only fun, but also quite edifying.

I liked this museum so much that two days later I made plans to visit it again, but you know how it goes... the best laid plans... and all that. Two days later there simply wasn't enough time.

Why did I like this museum? It made me feel like an Oriental princess. There I was, in my long, culturally sensitive clothing (but no head scarf yet) gazing at dainty silver things, admiring Koran scrolls, pretending to be in a time warp and sticking my nose into rooms that looked like film sets from an "Arabian Nights" remake.

No, you're not allowed to take photos inside. But if you do it discreetly, nobody seems to care.

The museum is literally across the street from the National Mosque, and there's a Hop On/Hop Off bus stop across the street.

The building itself is not very interesting (at least not for me), it's all modern, angular, very chi-chi design. But inside it's pleasantly cool and airy. There's also a very chi-chi gift/book shop there. And an equally chi-chi restaurant. Needless to say, we didn't eat there.

Next time I go there (if, when - no idea), I need to be better prepared and read up on Islamic arts beforehand, so I don't look like a total moron. Which is what I was during my visit last month.

It seems that my list of excuses for another trip to Malaysia is getting longer and longer... And who can blame me? It's a great place to visit!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Show Me Japan Vol.1 Issue 9

Welcome to the 9th edition of Show Me Japan. 第九回 Show Me Japan へようこそ。

You can see previous editions here. 前回の”Show Me Japan” エントリーはここです。

FAQ page in English and Japanese is here. 英語と日本語のFAQはここにありますので、初めて参加される方は目を通して頂けると幸いです。

Below is a random selection of photos from last week’s participants. 前回の参加者中からランダムに選んだ写真を以下に紹介します。

The widget to enter your links is at the end of this post – below the photos. ”Show Me Japan”にエントリーする際のリンクを貼るウィジェットはこの記事の一番下にあります。

 To visit Bigger in Japan, click on the photo above.

To check out Jonathan's excellent blog, click on the image above.

 A pretty lady from Haikugirl. Click on the photo to visit her blog.

Click on the photo to visit Clarissa's blog.

And now also on video - this one from LifeYouTV

If you participate in Show Me Japan, please be so kind and include a link back to this blog in your post. エントリーしたポスト中で “Show Me Japan”のリンクを貼り忘れてないか確かめて頂けると幸いです。バッジに “Show Me Japan”のリンクを加えて頂ければ至極幸いここ極まれりです。

Thank you for participating and have a wonderful weekend.

And now it's your turn!!!

Issue 9 is now closed. See you again next week!

Show Me Japan Participants

1. Bad Communication
2. DekoBoko
3. Floating Camera
4. lina
5. kirsten
6. BiggerInJapan
7. BiggerInJapan
9. David LaSpina
10. bartman
11. kirsten
12. Rubine
13. kyushudan
14. Tochigi Daily Photo
15. Um....Joe
16. Jay Dee in Japan
17. Yoshi, Japan
18. Muza-chan
19. Ichigoichielove
20. LifeyouTV
21. sixmats
22. kirsten
23. goodandbadjapan
24. Loco
25. Haikugirl

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Night at Petronas Towers

To the person who emailed me just to tell me that the title should say "Petronas Towers at Night" - go away. You're stupid. 
Now that we've established that, the title stays as it is.

Thick volumes and countless blog posts have been written about the Petronas Towers already, but that of course doesn't phase me in the least bit and I'm still going to add my 2 yen. Ringgit. Whatever.

I've been fascinated by this building (these buildings?) ever since I saw that movie in which Catherine Zeta-Jones does that ballet thing in slo-mo over red laser lights. Was she blindfolded while doing it? I don't remember...

And oh yeah, that old Scottish guy who once upon a time used to be James Bond was there, too. Whatever...

All I remember from this movie was that Ms. Zeta-Jones looked magnificently hot and the Petronas Towers looked magnificently..., well, magnificent.

I don't know why I found them so fascinating. Just two buildings connected with a sky bridge. Should be nothing special. But somehow, they were.

When I was there in December, I didn't go on the sky bridge. It's no longer free, and the fact that you have to line up ridiculously early in the morning to get one of the limited number of tickets was too much for me.

Maybe next time...

This is the view from the Menara Tower:

And a closeup of the spires:

The actual name of this complex is KLCC and there's a fancy shopping mall there, too. With the most hideously designed parking lot ever. But at least the grounds are pretty.

So yeah, that's about it. They're pretty.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lunch at Madam Kwan's in Kuala Lumpur

After Lina's excellent report on her blog, I thought I might as well add my 2 ringgit to the story.

The day we were meeting for lunch at Little Penang Cafe, I was actually running around like a headless chicken. In the morning I was at Menara KL Tower admiring the views, and then I got a brilliant idea of walking down to Merdeka Square and taking some sort of train from there to Mid-Valley.
Yeah, stupid. I know. NOW I know. But I didn't know it back then.

And so upon realizing just how stupid my plan was, I figured the best way to remedy the situation would be to just take a taxi to the mall.

Now, getting a taxi in KL seems to be either very deceptively easy or fiendishly hard. Take your pick.

In front of some bank I found a taxi stand with a line of taxis awaiting customers.

I approached the first car and got in. The driver asked me where I wanted to go. I told him to Mid Valley Mall. He said "meter broken. 56 ringgit." I laughed in his face and got out.

I approached the second taxi. This driver saw that something had just happened with Contestant Number 1 and was very cautious. He rolled down the window and asked me where I wanted to go. "Mid-Valley Mall," I told him. He looked at me very carefully and started with his "meter is broken" story and upon seeing my face, he realized he made a mistake. He pleaded with "only 30 ringgit!" I laughed in his face and walked over to Contestant Number 3.

He saw that something was up, Contestants Number 1 and 2 were furious and getting out of their cars, so as soon as I got in his taxi, he immediately said "Meter is working fine miss, where do you want to go?" 

 And he even had a Hello Kitty tissue box holder in the back.

And so he got me to Mid Valley in record time and for 15 ringgit. Yeah, probably still too much, but I told him he needed to be there by 1PM and damn, he did it. He backed out (in reverse and partly on a sidewalk) from a massive lunch-time jam (which if we had stayed there, would have gotten us to Mid Valley sometime around Easter) and took a very creative route instead. And he got me there on time. Very impressive all around.

 Taken from the taxi before the driver yelled at me to roll up the windows. He said something about snatchers on scooters who can grab my camera and zoom off.

When I arrived, it turned out that the waiting time at Little Penang Cafe was approximately 5 years (give or take a month) and that's how we ended up at Madam Kwan's upstairs.

Everything was oh-so-good. I'm drooling even now when I think about that lunch.
And feel free to drool too. Just be sure to protect your keyboard.

Char koay teow - NOM NOM NOM!!!

Stinky bean something, a.k.a. stir fried veggies with belacan - NOM NOM NOM!!!

Otak-otak, or fish in banana leaves - NOM NOM NOM!!!

There was also fried rice, fried chicken and this magnificent thing (not fried):

Shaved ice with some red flavor thrown in, along with a magnificent collection of stuff: raisins, nuts, corn, sweet beans and generally - the sort of stuff you have absolutely no clue what to do with on a normal day. But it was yummy - NOM NOM NOM!!!

Now, if you excuse me, I am hungry. I shall go sit in the corner and weep while looking at these photos.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Night Market in Kuala Lumpur

Because no trip to Malaysia would be complete without a visit to a night market, my friend Lina wasn't all that surprised when I informed her that was where I wanted to go.

Which night market? Because Kuala Lumpur has scores of them, I let my local guides make that decision. And since I have absolutely no sense of direction, I can't even tell you where it was. Yes, I'm that useless sometimes. But now I know that we went to Jalan TAR.

I've been to similar markets in other countries, but in one respect Malaysia was vastly different. And different in a positive way. What I liked was that almost no one harassed me. No one tried to sell me the earth, the sun, the moon and everything in between at, for you my friend, a very good price! No one tried to touch me, or even accidentally brush up against me. No one whistled or made obnoxious noises as I walked by.

Even though I was very clearly a tourist carrying a camera, I was, for the most part, left to my own devices. People were unfailingly friendly and approachable. And the whole experience was hassle and harassment-free.

If you're still in doubt over whether I liked my night market visit, just remember that they also sell food there. And apart from onions, shrimp and coconut milk, I haven't yet met food I didn't like. Yeah, it's a miracle I don't weigh 300 lbs by now, because let me tell you, food and I have this very special kind of relationship - if food's there, I eat it.

And at the night market, our relationship was in full bloom - there was plenty of food. And I ate it. Actually, I should have eaten more, but was worried that my hosts would think I'm some kind of a bottomless pit, or that I stuff my face like a pig in heat. So, instead, I behaved in a very cultured way and carried my video camera.