Saturday, December 8, 2018

Star Wars Exhibit at the Dubai Mall

Sometimes even perpetual losers like me get lucky.
I will be changing planes in Dubai on December 30th on my way to South Asia.
And by an amazing coincidence, December 30th is also the last day of the The Imperial Army, Star Wars™ Exhibit at the Dubai Mall.

The stars in the universe have lined up so precisely that you really couldn't have asked for a better schedule. Because, as it happens, I will be traveling with my stormtrooper helmet.

The mall opens at 10 a.m. and I am planning to be there early. Very early.

See the Imperial Army and dash back to the airport.

The whole adventure needs to be executed with military precision, but that is exactly my field of expertise.

Interestingly, the Dubai Mall mobile site lists the final date of the exhibit as December 31st.

It doesn't matter. I am planning to be there either way.
And yes, I have decided that I WILL take my bucket (stormtrooper helmet) on this trip. The Emirates airline allows only one carry-on. Somehow I will deal with it. How? Not sure just yet. The bucket doesn't fit into my suitcase. I brought it to Japan in a plastic garbage bag, yes, as a carry-on. That was in addition to my regular small bag.

This time I might not be so lucky. I suppose, if push comes to shove, I'll just carry the laptop under my arm and put the bucket on my head. I'm currently on hold with Emirates to ask about bringing a very oversized "hat" as my hand luggage.

And after an hour-long discussion with an absolutely useless Emirates customer service rep, who was just copying and pasting the same info I can find online, I am none the wiser. I honestly don't know why I have stuck with Emirates for so long. There are better options out there... Hmmm...

Anyway, wish me luck and see you at the Dubai Mall on December 30th!

Have a great weekend!


And the report from my visit to the exhibit is here - link.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Peruvian food instead of Tokyo Comicon

Yep. No need to read any further. You have it all in the title.
And that was my miserable failure of a weekend.

The grand plan was to go to Tokyo Comicon 2018.
Because I didn't know which day I would be free, just in case I got a full 3-day pass.

I eventually settled on Saturday. I scheduled all my work for Sunday to keep the Saturday free. I asked the One Who Shall Not Be Named to come with me. The One seemed interested, but said "Why Saturday? Why not Sunday?"

I rescheduled everything to free up the Sunday and worked all Saturday like a maniac that I am. But come Saturday night The One announced that since originally I was going to work on Sunday, he also scheduled work appointments for Sunday. Oh well... Turned out he wasn't that interested in going to Tokyo Comicon after all.

Now that my weekend was all properly pooped up beyond any hope and impossible to salvage, I decided on the second best option.

And that was to drown my sorrows in a plate of ceviche.

You see, I'm a huge fan of Peruvian food. Once upon a time I had this Japanese friend who used to date a guy from Ecuador. It was a cliche on top of a cliche. He - a manual laborer, an illegal immigrant, not even that good looking (at least not in my opinion). She - a rich Tokyo girl from inside the Yamanote Line, with a fancy degree from a fancy university. He was her humanitarian pet project. And she - his ticket to saying in a first world country.
It was thanks to this friend and her boyfriend, and his many Ecuadorian and Peruvian friends, I got introduced to the joys of ceviche. And needless to say, I immediately became addicted.

The thing with ceviche is that it's hard to find a good one. And a bad one can make you violently sick. But when faced with a bowl of ceviche, this is a risk I am always willing to take.

Fortunately for me, El Kero in Isesaki makes delicious ceviche. Actually, they make delicious everything.

Isesaki is one of those Japanese towns with a sizeable Latino population. And judging by the jingle of FM Gunma radio station, a hearty "Bom Dia!!!", Gunma is one of those Japanese prefectures with a sizeable Latino population. And that means that Brazilian and Peruvian food is fairly easy to find.

And speaking of, El Kero is definitely NOT easy to find. First, you need a car to get there. It's far from everywhere. And even if you do have a car, the task of locating this restaurant is bloody difficult, even for native Japanese (and Spanish) speakers. And once you find it, backing up into the parking space in front of El Kero is not for the faint of heart.

But once you pass those tests, you are deemed worthy of partaking in the finest Peruvian food in all of Northern Kanto.

We are usually the only non-Peruvians there and that alone tells you that for the regulars at El Kero, it's the taste of home, Peruvian food like their abuelas used to make. The service is slow and tends to be forgetful, but always kind and with a smile. The restaurant is relatively clean (depending on your standards), Japanese is spoken more or less fluently, Spanish of course, too. English not so much, or not at all. Inca Kola is served by the bottle.
I mean, what else would you want?

Usually I dig into my plate of whatever it is (pollo saltado, or lomo saltado, or steak, or fish, or grilled chicken, or rice and beans or what not) so fast that I don't even have enough time to take a proper photo.

In the year that we've been coming to El Kero, the size of ceviche has shrunk. The plate got fancier, but visibly smaller, even though the price stayed the same. But as long as the quality and taste are still the same, we will definitely be back.

After stuffing our faces silly until we were ready to burst, we went to a pottery exhibition at the Takasaki City Gallery. But more about it next time.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Strawberry season is upon us

There are no words to describe how much I hate winter. Humans were not meant to live in places where the average temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius. That's PLUS twenty, in case you are wondering.

If I could, I'd move to a more tropical country (working on it, slowly working on it...), but in the meantime, I'm doing the next best thing. And that is escaping from Japan in December or January, even if only for a few days.

The only thing that makes Japanese winters more tolerable are the strawberries. Yes. Strawberries.

You see, in Japan November and December are the start of the strawberry season. And having spent nearly ten years in a prefecture famous for its strawberries means I have a unique relationship with this fruit. I never used to like strawberries. I would eat one and break out in hives. They were always too sour, too meh, too strong, too tasteless, too something. I always managed to find a reason to dislike them.

That was until I came to Japan, started living in Tochigi and tried the famous tochiotome. And just like that, a new strawberry fan was born.

 Tochiotome is the special cultivar of strawberries that is grown mainly in Tochigi (hence the name). However, as the breed wasn't properly trademarked, there exist other strawberry varieties that are not branded as tochiotome, but which are exactly the same.

Tochiotome was developed in 1994 and since then can be found in other places in Asia, as well. Famous South Korean strawberries can trace their origin to tochiotome. Strawberries from Qingdao in China are also originally tochiotome transplants.

Now I'm no longer living in Tochigi and my new prefecture is famous for green onions. Yes, a huuuuuge step down, I know. But when I'm in the mood for strawberries, tochiotome is the brand I look for. I'm prepared to pay premium prices for tochiotome, because other strawberries can't compare (sorry Fukuoka!). And even though Skyberry is a worthy successor to tochiotome, I still prefer the original version.

So, while in the rest of the world "strawberry season" is synonymous with "summer," in Japan it's the other way round. People here are so conditioned that Christmas season means strawberry season that they are genuinely shocked and surprised that it isn't so in other parts of the world.

"So what do you put on your Christmas cake then?" was the question that an educated, supposedly well-traveled Japanese high school English teacher asked me once.

And the fact that strawberry shortcake is NOT a European Christmas tradition truly blew her mind.

So there you have it in a nutshell.
Christmas cake needs to look nice. A nice looking Christmas cake requires strawberries. Christmas happens to be in December. Boom! A new tradition is born. And that's how winter became the start of strawberry season in Japan.

Of course strawberries here are grown in greenhouses. That again confuses people who don't believe me when I tell them that in many places in the world strawberries are cultivated under the open skies.

Still not convinced that winter is the time for strawberries?
That's when a plethora of strawberry flavored snacks gets pushed to the front of the store displays.

My preference is for strawberry Melty Kisses.

 Starbucks Japan gets in on the act, too.

By the way, this drink was vile. Not even a shot of espresso could save it.

For some strange reason Starbucks Japan thinks that Japanese consumers prefer cream based drinks instead of coffee. They are wrong, of course, but that just goes to show you how out of touch with reality Japanese companies (or Japanese divisions of western companies) can be.

And here's a poor man's convenience store version.

I know that most foreign visitors get a raging hardon when they see strawberry Pocky or KitKats.

Whatever rocks your boat, I suppose. But trust me, they are not that good. Personally, I wouldn't touch this garbage.

I much prefer the fresh version.

And now, to buck the trend, please excuse me while I'll head to the kitchen to make another apple pie!

Happy winter!

Monday, May 7, 2018

May the Fourth Be with You - Star Wars Day in Tokyo 2018

This was the first year that I actually trekked to Tokyo for the Star Wars Day. I had lofty plans of getting up at the crack of dawn and hopping on an early train to the capital. I wanted to be in Tokyo by 9AM. Very ambitious considering that it would require me to get up at 5:30AM, on a public holiday, no less.

And then I had the brilliant idea to invite my friend to tag along. And she said "OMG! So exciting! Of course! Yes! Let's do it!", or somesuch.

When May 4th rolled around, the force was definitely not with us. The dumb twat wasn't ready. She wasn't ready at 6:30. She wasn't ready at 7. And she wasn't ready at 8 either. When we finally got going it was already after 9. That brought us to Tokyo close to noon. We might as well have stayed home...

But first things first...

If you have been living under a rock in a galaxy far, far away and don't know what Star Wars Day is, now is your chance to finally find out.

Star Wars Day is celebrated on May 4th, because May the fourth. Get it? May the fourth be with you. It works especially well in Japanese, because both "fourth" and "force" are pronounced the same by Japanese speakers and sound exactly the same to Japanese ears.

The event we were planning to attend was organized by J-Wave (one of Tokyo's radio stations) and held at Sanagi Space just a stone's throw from the South East exit of Shinjuku JR Station.

I just love this backpack!

Because May 4th is a public holiday (as are May 3rd and May 5th, too - so-called "Golden Week in Japan) and May 6th happened to be a Sunday this year, Tokyo got not one Star Wars Day, but a whole extended Star Wars weekend.

Golden Week meant that apart from the poor souls working in the service industry, the entire Japan was on vacation. That, in turn, meant that trains were packed and Tokyo was overflowing with people. It wasn't any better on the expressways. There was a massive 32 kilometer traffic jam on the Tohoku Highway going to Nikko.

When we got to Shinjuku, the line to Sanagi Space stretched down the block, around the building, across the street and back towards the station. A security guy cheerfully informed us that it was "oh, about a four hour wait."

My friend patiently settled herself at the end of the line, for all intents and purposes quite content to spend the entire day waiting there.

When after an hour the line didn't move forward at all, she finally mumbled "I'm so sorry, Anna" and very quickly ducked, because she could see I was ready to punch her square in the face.

While she was waiting, I walked around taking photos.

People were happy to pose, everybody was helping each other to take photos and the atmosphere was super friendly and filled with anticipation. With just one exception. Close to the exit from the Sanagi Space, I caught a procession of storm troopers marching along with guys with official organizer badges. One of the special badge holders was a white guy. And guess who screamed "no photos!" while foaming at the mouth? Yep, the white dude. While his  Japanese colleagues were simply walking forward escorting the storm troopers, he was the only one who objected to fans snapping pictures. Delusions of grandeur much, my friend?

Of course I ignored him and took a photo. Duh!

There were some interesting characters waiting in line.

The princesses came as late as we did, but because they were in costume, they just kind of snuggled up next to Chewie and skipped about a hundred people.

The shoes, ladies! Next time do something about those damn shoes!

The rebels were extremely happy, they were about an hour away from the entrance. Almost inside!

Darth Maul was busy playing a smartphone game.

And there is nothing quite as bizarre as a grown Japanese man dressed up as BB8.

There were plenty of stormtroopers.

And they knew their main purpose was to stand there and pose for photos. Such troopers!

The person on the right, not sure if it's a woman, or a man dressed as a woman. We've been debating it on the way home. I said it's a man, my friend disagreed. If it's a woman, she is bloody tall. Definitely taller than me and even taller than the friendly trooper here.

Our blue alien hero was definitely a woman.

Of course there was also a Kylo Ren (there were several actually) walking around.

I chatted with a couple of people who managed to get inside Sanagi Space and while they said it was fun, it was also somewhat underwhelming. J-Wave clearly underestimated the popularity of Star Wars Day and the staffers were visibly tense and frustrated. They had to deal with the clusterfuck outside and at the same time keep moving people along on the inside. And apparently, some people when they finally got inside after hours of waiting in the heat (it was bloody hot that day!) did not want to be rushed or moved along.

I really wanted to take a photo sitting next to the cardboard cutout of the dashing young Solo, but sadly, no luck.

As you can see, the Solo movie is titled "Han Solo" in Japan, or rather "Han Soro," because there's no "L" in Japanese. And it's going to be released on June 29th in Japan. More than a month after the rest of the world. This is especially frustrating since other Star Wars movies premiered in Japan on the same weekend as the US.

I wasn't going to put up with this kind of bullshit and planned a trip to Europe to coincide with the release of the Solo movie in May. I was hoping to see it on the premiere day, but unfortunately, that will not happen. Schedules and plane tickets and such. I'll try to go to the movies on May 28th. Yay me!

Or, I may see it in Dubai on May 26th. I'm still exploring my options. One thing is certain. I am not going to wait one full month for the Japanese premiere. 

And here's a final group photo of the most in-you-face cosplayers.

When after an hour the line didn't move at all, my friend finally realized it was an exercise in futility and we decided to leave. Next year you'd better be ready at 6AM, you numbnut! Or I'm not taking you at all.

And next year I should (hopefully) be a member of the Japanese Garrison of the 501st Legion. I'm currently waiting for my very own stormtrooper armor.

And this is how Star Wars Day was celebrated at Heathrow Airport:

It would never happen at a Japanese airport. Well done, Heathrow!!! But next year, please, can you add Scarif to the list?

May the fourth be with you.

See you again next year.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Recycling in Japan

Last Monday, for the first time ever, I made a trip to the municipal garbage dump and recycling plant. Not for fun and pleasure, oh no. I had some serious stuff to throw out.

You see, throwing out bulky, big, household things in Japan is not so easy. Usually, it costs money. In some cases, it costs a lot of money. When I gathered all the stuff I wanted to dump and realized just how big of a load it was, the first thing I did was call a waste pickup service. They gave an estimate, which nearly induced a heart attack. 25,000 yen to come and collect and dispose of everything. That's nearly 250 dollars. And that did not even include "special handling garbage," such as oil heaters and sofas! Charges for these are extra.
Thank you, but no, thank you. For that amount of money, I could stay one night in a budget resort in Maldives. Or four nights in a guesthouse on a local Maldivian island.

I thanked the nice man on the phone and started looking for alternate ways of dumping my load. (hehe).

A bit of googling directed me to the main municipal dump - Clean Park Mobara.

There are a couple smaller garbage processing centers in Utsunomiya, but Mobara is the biggest and the grandest. It also accepts the widest variety of trash. You can dump there pretty much anything other than paper, sofas and white good (fridge, etc).

Clean Park Mobara is more than just a garbage dump.
It houses an environmental learning center (or however you want to translate it) where young schoolchildren are taught about the virtues of recycling. School trips to Mobara are apparently really fun and kids love them.

Recycling indoctrination starts at a very early age in Japan. By the time we're adults, we are already conditioned to obediently sort garbage into five different categories and 13 different types.

This is the memo every household in the city got at the start of 2010. Some households, like mine, got them in multiple languages.
It was music to my OCD ears. I went out and bought 3 extra bins to put in the kitchen. I diligently rinsed, folded, cut, bagged and tied up with string. I felt really good about doing my part for the environment. I embraced the new sorting and disposing rules with enough zeal for several Japanese housewives.

Before throwing anything out, I looked for the "pura" sign on the package, because recycling became my new religion.

What is the "pura" sign, I hear you say?


It can be found on anything that can, or rather should, be recycled.

It's everywhere. After a while you get so used to seeing it that when you can't find it on foreign packaging, you feel something is amiss.
In Japan, every individual candy wrapper has "pura" information on it.

So now you know how it's supposed to work in theory. You sort the garbage into different groups depending on the information printed on packages, and your trash is either burned or recycled.

Of course we want to recycle. It is drilled into us that recycling is good, that plastics are choking our oceans and killing the fish, and so on...

I was dutifully sorting and separating everything for years. I was taking the bags to the curb on the appropriate days (burnables on Tuesdays and Fridays and recycling on Wednesdays). I felt good about doing my part to save the environment.

On Monday I proudly took my perfectly sorted trash to Clean Park Mobara. I folded up the seats in the back and loaded up the car with bags of beautifully separated plastics and glass and metals and bulky items and off I went.

You know you are getting closer when you start following a convoy of garbage trucks.

Clean Park Mobara garbage disposal plant serves only certain municipalities, and usually you are asked for an ID when driving through the gates.
The gate agent checks what kind of garbage you have and based on that you are directed accordingly. You get an entry pass with your number, the proper station is notified that you are coming and they are waiting for you. This is to prevent you wandering off into the bowels of the plant.

There are two lines painted on the road - blue for burnable trash, and yellow for everything else.
The first day I was told to follow the yellow line.

You drive onto a ramp and then into the building to the first (second?) floor. There you are directed to the appropriate unloading bay. This is the hardest part, because you have to back up into the bay and stay within the painted lines. The floor may, or may not move and you don't want to accidentally junk your car there.

I started unloading my stuff. An old printer, a bag of chargers and batteries, assorted small appliances, everything was picked up, quickly looked over and then promptly dumped into separate trolleys waiting to take the stuff away.

And then I presented my bags of carefully sorted "pura" plastics.
The man shook his head.

I said "pura."
He looked at me funny and said "moeru." (burnable)

I said, "here, look! Pura sign."
He just laughed and said, "burnable, burnable, burnable. Everything burnable!" And told me to take it to the burnable unit.

I refused to believe him. These were plastics. They had the "pura" recycle sign.
The man threw the bags back into my car and shooed me out of the way. Other people were waiting.

Dejected, I drove along the blue line for burnables. My bags of "pura" were accepted there without any questions.

My world was collapsing right in front of my eyes. And my environmental righteousness along with it.

Why then was I separating everything like a maniac all these years? What for? Why? How? What was the point?

When driving out of the building, still in total shock, I nearly got run over by a dump truck leaving the ground floor.

I remembered hearing stories that recyclables go into the fire, but at that time, I simply dismissed them as excuses of people too lazy to sort their trash. I remembered getting frustrated with a co-worker who kept throwing disposable wooden chopsticks into the "pura" bin at the office. And when she laughed at me, I assumed she was an arrogant b*tch who didn't care about the poor garbage plant workers whose job is to sort the bags later.

Little did I know that there would be no sorting of any kind. Just burning. Burning.

I returned home and started making dinner. It felt so good to throw away plastic vegetable wrappers into regular household trash. Yay!

The next day I did a bit of investigating. What I learned was both sad and shocking. Not only "pura" items go into the fire. Do you dutifully sort all paper packagings like I used to do for years? Well, you're wasting your time. Only cardboard, simple brown cardboard, gets recycled. Everything else? Into the fire.

The reason for it is, that apparently, it costs too much money to recycle processed paper printed with color ink. The chemicals used for printing render nearly all such materials virtually unrecyclable due to high costs involved.

My world will never be the same again. All I need from now on is just 3 bins for recycling: one for glass, one for cans, and one for PET (plastic) drink bottles. Everything else? Into the fire!!!

In the meantime, I should go back to packing up the house.
I still have more things to throw out and that brings us to items so vile that even the municipal dump will not take them - sofas, spring mattresses and electric oil heaters. And big home appliances. These absolutely MUST be handled by special disposal companies.

Want to throw out a broken electric oil heater? Prepare to pay around 40 dollars for the privilege. You want to dump an old sofa? Prices for throwing it out start at 80 dollars. Spring mattresses? Unless you are willing to pay around 7 dollars per kilo, you're shit out of luck.

That explains abandoned household goods in the Japanese countryside. Washing machines dumped by the side of the road, sofas rotting in the fields, heaters abandoned behind buildings. Yes, such Japan very much exists, but if you are a casual tourist, you will never see it. You will go back home only with images of perfectly clean streets and sparkling train stations in big cities.

Japan so clean! Yeah, right...

P. S. Turns out that if you chop up your sofa into smaller pieces, remove the nails and the staples and the springs, you CAN take the parts to the municipal garbage dump.  An hour of physical work will save you a bundle of cash. The equivalent of one night at a nice guesthouse in the Maldives.

Who knew!

I only ended up paying for white goods disposal. And even there I got lucky as a friend had a relative running a private hazardous materials recycling facility. Lucky!