Sunday, September 9, 2018

Coffee Fruits

So, a while ago my coffee plant decided to bloom, despite really still being to small to do so properly.

Imagine my surprise when this showed up recently:

Coffee fruit

Yes, real coffee fruits. The actual coffee "bean" is the seed in the center of the fruit. They should slowly mature over winter and turn red towards spring. Once they're mature you pick them, remove the flesh, dry and hull the seed, at which point you have a green coffee bean. Roast, grind and infuse in hot water and you have yourself some coffee.

That said, I counted a total of seven fruits on the whole bush. Even if they all mature — a big if — there won't be enough beans for even one cup of coffee. Of course that's not really the point. It's just fun to see the whole process. And perhaps the bush can produce more the next time when it's grown larger.

Saturday, July 21, 2018


This summer I've started running. For real. On the road. Using my legs.

Selfie at Manko park (no sniggering, Kansai people) in Naha. About 31°, lots of UV radiation and very humid, so a hat, sunglasses, well-covering clothes and sunscreen is necessary. A wet towel around the neck helps with the heat. And oh, but damn my beard is going grey.

I've been running for a couple of months now, but I wanted to make a proper habit of it before I tell other people. I started on the "C25K" program in May, and finished it last week. I intend to continue so I figure it's safe to post about it now.

The Toyomio bridge in Naha, across lake Man.

Why running?

I'm 49 years old, and I'm facing the prime age for heart and circulatory problems. In another decade I'll start worrying about osteoporosis and other medical issues. But we can avoid or reduce a lot of these problems by keeping fit, and the time to do that is now, not by the time the issues appear.

I am healthy (apart from some extra weight) and I used to get plenty of exercise just by walking during my commute. But I drive to work here on Okinawa, and my job at the OIST computing center is sedentary to say the least. A strenuous work day, for me, is when I have to carry both a laptop and a mug of coffee to a meeting room in the building next door.

Watering the plants. I bring a small, crappy camera with me, and treat my running as just another photowalk. When you run you melt into the scenery, and nobody really notices what you do.

But why running?

Why running, though? Surely there must be hundreds of other sports out there to choose from?

It has to be something aerobic (so no chess, no archery, no diving). I should be able to do it almost every day (no kayaking or surfing). I don't have the time or motivation to do anything on my way to or from work, so I need to do it over my lunch hour near OIST (no karate (an obvious choice, otherwise), swimming or climbing). Can't ski without snow, can't skate without ice.

Nothing that needs expensive equipment. Chances are I'll give up after all. Bicycling is really popular here, but a road bike is definitely in the realm of "expensive equipment". Same for rowing and boating, any motorsport, parasailing and so on. And it shouldn't bore me to tears of bitter frustration at the very thought of doing it, so no gym.

In the end, running was the only sport that ticked off all boxes. It's cheap to begin; it doesn't need a lot of instruction or a special place to do it; and it's a good activity for aerobic fitness, circulatory health and bone strength.

Behind Naminoue shrine, Naha. You discover a lot of new places when running.

How to run?

I've never been a runner. At school I loathed running. We had some cheap gym shoes, and our instructions amounted to little more than "run as fast as you can". I'd try, and within a few minutes my shins would go numb, my ankles wobbled, and my sides would start hurting like crazy. No wonder I hated it.

Today it's really easy to find out how to start running properly. Just google "beginner runner" and you'll find a wealth of information. The important points are:

Typhoon. Rain is great! The temperature drops, and the rain water cools you down. The shoes are fine; they'll dry up, and besides they only last for a year or so anyhow. 

Get good shoes. That's not "get expensive shoes" or "get fashionable shoes". Get a pair or running shoes that fit you well and feel comfortable and stable when you try running in them. If your shoes don't fit, you'll hurt. And if you hurt it's no fun and you'll quit. You don't need a lot of equipment to run, but this is the one thing you really want to spend on.

I went to a store (Super Sports Xebio in Ginowan), where they measured my feet and stance. I tried four or five pairs of shoes they suggested, and actually ran around the store with each pair before picking the ones that felt most comfortable. It wasn't the most expensive ones and it certainly wasn't the coolest-looking ones, but they do fit me really well.

I had no idea Naha even had canals.

Look up C25K. It's a program for beginners called "Couch to 5 kilometers", and I can't recommend it enough. There's a bunch of smarthpone apps and things available, but basically it's just a schedule with three runs each week for 9 weeks. Here's Britain's NHS with their podcast version for instance, and here's a nicely laid out weekly schedule.

It starts out very light, with 1-minute jogging followed by 1.5 minutes walking for a total of 20 minutes. It gradually builds up each week until you run for 30 minutes straight at week 9. It works very well. I never felt that I pushed myself too hard, and I never really hurt after a run.

A fellow runner not pushing himself. Naminoue, Naha.

Run slow. As in reeally slow. You run at "easy pace", which is slow enough that you can easily hold a conversation with somebody as you run. Yes, for a beginner that is barely faster than walking, and yes, you feel a little silly shuffling along while pregnant mothers pass you by and old Okinawan obasans overtake you with their walkers.

But it really works; your condition and speed will improve over time, and your "easy pace" will become faster. Also, and I didn't know this at first, even experienced runners spend most of their training time in "easy pace". What matters is the amount you run, not the speed. If you try to run fast you'll wear out and can't run for very long. If you run long and slow, your speed will improve over time.

OIST, Onna. Weekdays I run on my lunch break. There's a fair amount of small roads in the area, though they are all pretty hilly.

What's it like, then?

When I started running — using proper shoes and with the slow jog-walk-jog schedule that's the start of C25K — it didn't hurt at all. It actually felt pretty good. And surprisingly, it was quite fun.

Now, two months later, it feels even better, and I'm enjoying myself immensely. On weekdays I'll run, shower and change before lunch. I feel refreshed and energetic in the afternoon. On weekends I run through Naha in the morning, or we go somewhere along the coast and I have a run before we go swimming in the ocean.

In many ways I treat running like a faster form of a camera walk. I pick an interesting route to explore, bring a small camera, and enjoy the changing scenery as I run. It's a lot of fun.

The sea. Going downhill from the OIST campus will take you to the coast and to views like this. Very tempting to stop and take a swim. Only problem: from here there's a 70 meter vertical climb back up to work. I'd be soaked in sweat again by the time i return.

Thursday, July 5, 2018


It's summer, and OIST gives me more vacation days than I know what to do with. So I took two days off — today, Thursday and tomorrow Friday — for a four-day long summer weekend. And we decided to visit beautiful, scenic Kumejima island west of Okinawa island, just a quick half-hour plane ride away.

Except we didn't go. A weak typhoon passed by over last weekend, and the weather forecast on Wednesday was rainstorms, heavy winds, high seas and thunderstorms. The Wednesday flights to Kumejima were cancelled — Kumejima airport is tiny — so we didn't even know if our flight this morning would even leave. And Kumejima itself is drenched, with all beaches closed, mudslides and general flooding and wetness all around.

So we cancelled the trip last night. The guesthouse was very understanding and didn't even ask for the deposit (we'll definitely book there the next time), and the airline only charged a small fee, so we didn't lose much. Instead we're doing an impromptu rain-themed vacation in Naha. We're taking the opportunity to visit shops and restaurants we normally couldn't on a weekday, and just generally taking it easy. I have a backlog of film I want to scan, and this will be a good opportunity.

Today we went to a steak house for lunch; to a shopping mall, then to a farmer's market for food, and Ritsuko got some solid experience driving in rain and wind while I was busy surfing the web on my phone. We'll definitely visit Kumejima sometime soon; meanwhile this is shaping up to become a decent at-home vacation in its own right.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Earthquake in Osaka

Strong earthquake in Osaka this morning, Shindo 6+ at the strongest and about Shindo 5 right where we live:

The red "X" is the epicenter (M5.9), and our place is just southwest of that. Fortunately, we're both in Okinawa right now.

Damage in Osaka city seems to be only moderate, with power outages, stuff falling  from shelves, some injuries and lots of people stuck in elevators. The area between Osaka and Kyoto was hardest hit, with some fires and a few deaths. A couple of relatives — Ritsuko's cousin and her husband — live on a mountainside in that area. They're most likely fine, but I'll relax once we can confirm that.

Our remaining worry is the state of our place in Osaka. We have been fairly good at putting things away and anchoring furniture, but I suspect Ritsuko will still have a bit of cleaning up to do when she next returns.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

License renewal

I renewed my drivers license for the first time here in Japan. In Sweden it was easy: every ten years you got a renewal form that you filled in and sent in with a recent picture of yourself. A few weeks later the new license arrived in the post.

Japan is different. To renew your license you visit a driving license center. There you fill out a form ("do you have a drug dependency?", "have your physician told you to stop driving?"), do a simple vision test and take a new picture.

The license renewal center in Chatan. Not pictured is the big cemetery just off to the left. Honestly, the cemetery felt more cheerful when I first arrived.

But like so often here, while the building feels like pure bureaucratic depression, the people working there were friendly, easy-going and happy to help out in any way they could. It was all a smooth, pleasant experience from start to finish.

There are three licenses: new drivers get a green license valid for up to three years (your birthday the third year). Then you get a blue license, also valid for three years. If you have no traffic violations for the entire time, you get a gold license valid for five years. I went from a green to a blue license this time around.

The final and longest part of the process is the lecture. New drivers (like myself) and people with traffic violations get a two-hour lecture. Blue license holders get one hour. And Gold license holders get a quick 30-minute meeting.

Our lecture room. Somebody should swoop in and designate this a protected heritage site before they get around to destroying it in some renovation. Just look at those monitors! The lectern! The mysterious but oh-so-cool 1970's style number display on the right!

The first parts were the most useful — and, I suspect, the only part that gold license holders need to sit through. Traffic laws change over time and we got updated on any changes since we took our license. He also presented local statistics and happenings on Okinawa, such as the construction of a new roundabout on one main road here on the island, and talked about how to safely navigate the somewhat complicated crossing.

The most important change to me: when I converted my license, a regular license let you drive a car of up to 5t weight. Since then, Japan has introduced a light truck ("準中型") class with up to 7.5t weight and 4.5t loading capacity; at the same time a regular license is now only valid for cars of up to 3.5t. So my renewed license is now for a light truck, but with the 5t restriction I had before. However, we can take a 4 hour course at a traffic school to get rid of the weight restriction and get a "real" light truck license. I'm rather tempted to do this; it can come in handy.

The other two parts of the lecture was all about safety and accidents. Drunk driving rules and statistics; the dangers of left turns; don't blindly trust other drivers signalling a go-ahead and so on. The final half hour was a surprisingly well-produced drama about the consequences of causing a fatal accident. It was a tight, well-written manuscript and a couple of competent and fairly well known actors in the main parts. It would not have been out of place as a half-hour NHK weekend drama.

After a morning like this, what I need is a plateful of tasty calories. One benefit of the US military presence here is that there's quite a lot of restaurants doing good burgers and things of that nature. This is a bacon-burger with poutine at Gordie's Old House on road 58 in Chatan. Yes, it was as good as it looks.

Overall, while the process is a hassle I don't think it's a waste of time. The rule changes and local information were genuinely useful. The safety lecture about dangerous situations is a timely reminder for new license holders. And the drama should make people a little more careful for a few days or weeks at least. Still, I'm looking forward to (hopefully) get a gold license and not having to do this for another five years.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Coffee Bloom

My coffee plant has bloomed! Well, sort of. I got the plant about two and a half years ago, when it was still just a small seedling. They normally flower around now, once they reach three years of age, but the plant is still so small — barely up to my thigh — that I thought it would be another year or two at least.

Coffee flowers.

But flower it did. Less than a dozen flower buds appeared, then bloomed and fell in just a few days. The whole process took less than a week, when it should normally go on for a month. I doubt there was time for them to be pollinated and I don't think there will be any fruit this year. Let's hope it will be bigger and stronger next year!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Golden Week

Golden Week — the string of back-to-back national holidays — is almost over. We spent it in Osaka, mostly doing nothing in particular. I'm returning to Okinawa today, while Ritsuko stays in Osaka for another week.

I've taken a lot of pictures as usual, but you're mostly not going to see them in this post. It takes weeks for me to get around to prepare digital images, and this time around it'll be even longer. I brought my Pentax 67 and challenged myself to use only the 45/4 lens (about equivalent to 24 mm on a 35mm camera). It was a lot of fun and I hardly used the digital camera at all. But it will be some time before I will get around to develop and scan the film.

Instead I will post a mix of images from this and earlier visits to Osaka. I've been really bad about doing this lately, and I have a lot of pictures from February, from the New Year and even from last summer. If a picture seems surprisingly wintery you now know why.

That is the largest USB port I've ever seen.

Golden Week is the main travel holiday in Japan, alongside with New Year. Fortunately, people mostly travel to Okinawa for holidays, rather than away from it, so it's fairly easy to get an airplane seat to Osaka at the start, and back to Okinawa at the end. Osaka itself is crammed to the rafters with travellers, however. The multi-year boom in South-Asian tourists shows not sign of stopping, and Golden Week adds trainloads of domestic tourists. Everywhere is busy.

Unfortunately, the tourist influx is turning some areas into tourist traps. Shinsaibashi shopping street used to be a pretty good mix of small shops, restaurants and a couple of large department stores. But the southern part of Shinsaibashi is turning into a desert of back-to-back souvenir shops and drug stores. Chinese tourists especially love buying medicines and make-up here, because it's tax-free and possibly because the merchandise is guaranteed to not be fake. But that change, and the hordes of suitcase-wielding tourists clogging the streets, have chased away most local shoppers.

The Kuromon market is even worse. It used to be a food market catering to restaurants early in the morning and locals in the afternoon. But local people I know (my wife included) have all given up on shopping there, and many of the wholesalers have moved out altogether (they've mostly moved to Nishi-ku). With a few exceptions, what's left is hordes of tourists and stalls mostly selling snacks and fast food.

One trend among Chinese tourists: Come her with an old, half-broken suitcase with your stuff. Buy a brand new set of luggage for all your tax-free shopping, then throw away your old bag somewhere. Can leave it on the street, throw into somebody else's garbage or whatever - never mind that it's illegal and may cost someone money to dispose of your stuff. Make sure to throw away any cardboard boxes you don't need as well. It will become somebody else's problem.

People I know here are for the most part tolerant and open-minded. But the behaviour of the Chinese travellers could tax the patience of a saint. They are not winning hearts or making friends to say the least.

People are no doubt making good money selling aspirin, moisturiser and grilled-things-on-a-stick to travellers. But when the original stores and the locals disappear, so do the very things that made these places — Kuromon market especially — attractive to tourists in the first place. And when the tourists inevitably tire of the commerce and abandon these areas, we'll be left with a desolate shutter street. I'm really afraid that Shinsaibashi and Kuromon will turn into grisly object lessons on the folly of chasing short-term profits rather than planning for the long-term.

Umeda, Osaka.

I spent most of my time just walking. I'd wander from Shinsaibashi up small side streets up to east Umeda where I visit the Junkudo bookstore, amble through central Umeda and have lunch, then walk down south again by early evening. It feels great, but I realized I'm seriously out of shape. I could easily walk all day with a heavy camera bag before moving to Okinawa; but after a year with a car I now have to sit down and catch my breath every hour. Not good, not good at all. I need to find some way to fit a bit of daily exercise into my life.

When you're in Osaka this is perfectly normal. She could be on her way to a masquerade or to the office. It's hard to be sure.

As you know, Ritsuko took her driving license this winter. She really enjoys driving — so much, in fact, that we rented a car for a day and drove to Kobe. Well, she drove; I didn't get to touch the steering wheel. Which is fine by me, as I rather sit in the passenger seat and play with my phone and look at the view.

Most Indian restaurants in Japan are north-Indian or Nepalese. Madras Kitchen in Kobe is a south-Indian restaurant, and it is very good. It's one of the Indian places we alternate between whenever we visit Kobe. Here a Dosa with a selection of curry toppings.

It's not hideously expensive (8000 yen in all for a day) but it's also not very fast. Oh, driving to Kobe is faster than taking the train, but with searching for a parking spot for half an hour, then walking to your destination it's really faster to just take the local train. That wasn't the point for us of course. Ritsuko got her driving fix and we got to see parts of Hyogo we wouldn't normally visit.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Osaka seem to view traffic regulations as quaint traditions you can follow or not as you will. But overall it's actually easier to drive in Osaka than in Okinawa. The streets are fairly wide and straight, and people are far better drivers. Okinawa drivers tend to ignore stop signs and red lights; cut in front and weave uselessly through traffic; drive _really_ slow or very fast; break and accelerate strongly and suddenly without warning (looking at you Y-plate cars) and just generally drive poorly. Osaka traffic is much better behaved.

Henrietta is a bar and ice cream parlour in Tsuruhashi. It's run by Benjamin, the guy on the left, and it's become one of our favourite places for a bar night out. Me on the right, and a lovely couple that used to run a bar in Shinsaibashi in the center. It's a really fun, relaxed water hole; I can recommend it.

Ice cream, by the way? Yes, absolutely. On weekends it's open in the afternoon as well, and they have a selection of very good ice creams sourced from a small maker in Kobe. Do try the Pistachio; it's absolutely delicious.

We spent a lot of time eating and drinking well of course. A couple of relatives invited us over for tetchiri, or fugu hot pot. I'd only had fugu sashimi once many years ago, so this was a first for me. You order a fugu from the fishmonger and they prepare it for you. It really uses all of the fish: the most tender flesh became sashimi, while the rest went into the hot pot with the bones. The skin is thinly sliced and vinegared and served as an appetizer. Even the fins are used: dried and roasted, then steeped in hot sake for flavour. Excellent.

Umeda Sky Building

We're going back to Osaka together again in August; I will at least try to process my current images before then.