Friday, April 10, 2015

Hanami, Again

Cherry blossoms.

So in the end we did have a decent cherry blossom viewing after all. We went to Kawachi Nagano in southern Osaka to visit one of Ritsukos friends who lives there. It's sort-of rural, but still easy to get to by local train.

Sakura, Ume
Cherry trees and a still-blooming ume.

Saturday started out cloudy but with no rain. As we arrived toward lunch-time, the sun was actually coming out now and again. The whole area is lousy with cherry-trees, so you could go just about anywhere and have a good view.

Towards afternoon it started to rain again, but by then we'd already gone back to the house for coffee, before we cooked dinner together. A pleasant day despite the weather.

Fishy Eyes
Me, by Ritsuko. Fish-eye lenses can be fun :)

Small Patch
Blossoms near a local school.

Friday, April 3, 2015


Rain, rain and more rain. The cherry trees are blooming, but the petals are being washed away even now. The weekend promises yet more rain. Lots of cancelled hanami parties this year no doubt. At least I did get a picture of the cherry blossoms this morning on my way to work.

Pink cherry blossoms. Not bad for a phone camera.

We're going to south Osaka tomorrow for hanami. We'll see if we'll even be able to sit outside or if we need to hide from the weather. Doesn't matter; it's a nice area in any case.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


I've finished the Hokkaido pictures, finally. The problem is that to get into the right frame of mind I need a few free hours at a time. I rarely have that these days, so scanning, editing and posting — and writing blog posts for that matter — drags on forever.

As I'm sure you no longer remember (I barely do myself) we went to Hokkaido for our New Year holidays. We stayed overnight in Kushiro on the south-east coast of Hokkaido, spent New Year at Kussharo Genya, a youth hostel run by an old friend of Ritsuko, then spent a night in Sapporo before returning home again.

Snowed-in playground in Kushiro.

Kushiro is much the same as the last time we passed by. It's sizable city with a large fishing port, but the town center feels lonesome and a little dreary. Lots of stores where shuttered, and judging from the realtor signs it's not all because of the New Year holidays.

There were a lot of local people at a nearby supermarket, stocking up for the holiday. A fair number of tourists — us included — found the Moo complex in the harbour, which has a bunch of restaurants and shops selling local products. It's not bad, especially if your heart is set on marinated or dried fish.

Sausage Curry
Moo has a fair few restaurants of the cheaper variety. There's several ramen and seafood places, but we chose to have lunch at one doing old-style "western" food, including this quite delicious curry rice with sausages.

Aburia is a robata restaurant in Kushiro. Second time here, and it was just as good as the first time.

But overall, Kushiro seems to be a place that you pass through; a way point, not a destination. Life there is probably quite comfortable. It's big enough to have some speciality shops, restaurants, cafes, railway lines and an airport, but small enough that you can actually explore the entire town. But there's not a whole lot there for visitors.

Kushiro station. This is pretty much all many visitors ever see of the town.

After a night in Kushiro, we left town northward by rail. The line passing by Mashu — and ultimately to famous/infamous Abashiri on the north coast — is trafficked by a one-car rail bus. I like these. It feels small and compact, and it's slow enough that you can see the sights outside. But it's still a train so the ride is smooth, comfortable and fairly quiet.

Rail Bus
Our valiant steed, ready to whisk us forthwith to the fair distant shores of Kussharo.

Mashu station area.

You reach Kussharo Genya via Mashu, a small town to the south of the main lakes. We got picked up by Kazu-san, the owner; the car ride takes some 20 minutes or so. Most or all of the 15-odd guests were regulars, come to celebrate New Year. As Kazu is a former Kyoto cook, the food here is always good, and at New Year he really outdoes himself, with a buffet on New Years Eve, then traditional dishes on New Years day.

Kussharo Genya
The Kussharo Genya youth hostel. It's early in the season so not much snow yet.

A good tip when shooting a picture like this — when you carry a bag full of camera equipment, tripod and so on down a snow-covered road in the icy cold of dead winter — is to not forget both your flashlight and phone inside. Without a light, you can see neither the light meter display, nor could you set the shutter and aperture if you could.

And walking all the way back to the hostel, pick up the flashlight, then trudge up the road again in the pitch dark is not nearly as fun as it sounds.

In the evening we all watched Kōhaku, the traditional music team competition. We also had a team quiz and a dart tournament — I was never good at darts before, but after not playing for ten years I really suck. Still fun though.

New Year
New Years evening. People mill about a bit after dinner.

The breakfast on New Years morning is all traditional Japanese fare. This plate was only one of several.

New Years day morning.

The whole area is hilly, but there's no really big mountains, so the place is good for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, should your interests lean in that direction. A couple of guests actually went on a canoe tour — they got full winter gear and dry suits, then out on the lakes with a guide in the subzero weather. They came back beaming with joy, so it was a success, apparently.

Shadows and stairs. The weather was mostly overcast, but we did have glimpses of sunshine.

We spent New Years day walking about, camera in hand. We're not spoiled for snow in Osaka, so the crisp, dry air and the bright white snow cover is a welcome change from the usual grey drizzle. The weather was so-so, mostly cloudy and windy. Towards evening we sat around with the other guests reading and talking.

It won't silo no more
The remains of a silo.


On our way to Sapporo.

Our final destination was Sapporo. We took the local train back to Kushiro, then boarded the express to Sapporo in the west. It's a large city of almost two million people, with its own (very roomy) subway and tram lines. It's big enough that it has everything you'd need, and I guess that's part of the problem; the rest of Hokkaido is bleeding young people to Sapporo, and that causes quite a bit of resentment. But it's a beautiful, comfortable city and I like the place. I'd probably prefer Sapporo over Tokyo if I had to choose.

Sapporo Television Tower
Sapporo center park and the iconic television tower.

Sapporo Home
An older home in Sapporo. There's a lot of single homes built in this patchwork style.

Sapporo night-time streets. Leave the main streets and the city has a very pleasant town vibe to it.

The food is excellent in Hokkaido; the seafood, especially, is probably the best in Japan. We bought fillets, smoked fish, fish roe, packs of shishamo (small fish you fry and eat whole) as well as cheese, sausages and smoked bacon. It's cheap and easy to ship a frozen food-box to Osaka, so you just make sure to buy enough to fill it up.

Djingis Khan
'Djingis Khan' is Japanese for restaurant barbecue like this, usually with lamb meat. Good stuff.

Garaku Treasure
'Garaku Treasure' is one of many soup curry restaurants in Sapporo. If you visit Hokkaido, soup curry is a must. There used to be a decent soup curry place in Osaka but they sadly closed years ago.

A sunny morning the last day. Shadows in a nearby park.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Our Homemade Olives are done — oh, are they done!

We started a tiny batch of olives last September, and now they're finally ready to eat.

They're quite easy to make: Make a cut in each olive, then put them in brine (1:8 salt and water by weight) for a few weeks. Replace the brine, add garlic cloves and chilies, and let stand until done.

I topped-up the jar with olive oil since that's supposed to keep the top ones from oxidizing, but a few still turned out dark and mushy. Next time I'll rig up some kind of net in the jar to keep them from floating to the surface. We first tried them in January but they were still a bit more bitter than we like. I changed the water one more time and left them for another month.

Homemade Olives
Our olives are done, and they turned out great. They're also fun to photograph.

We tried them for real last weekend. They're juicy and salty, with just a hint of bitterness and lots of umami. The chilies and garlic cloves add a pleasant tangy note. They're delicious; now I wish we had an olive tree. And a garden to keep it in.

With luck the local market will have fresh olives again next autumn. If they do, we have to make these again. Add a sprig of thyme next time perhaps...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making Miso

Miso is a staple of Japanese cooking. Nowadays you buy it ready-made in supermarkets or miso-shops, but up until fairly recently it was not uncommon for people to make their own. It's really quite simple: cooked soy beans, rice or barley is mixed and fermented with "koji" until it turns into a brown, intensely flavourful paste.

I stumbled on a miso-making kit recently, so we're having a go at it. You could easily get the ingredients for yourself of course, but it's very convenient to get the right amount of everything and a set of instructions.

Boiled soy beans; rice mixed with koji; salt; and a bit of miso dissolved in warm water. A strong plastic bag is good for mixing stuff, but a bowl would be fine too of course. Had we used dry beans we'd have first soaked them for a day, washed them, then boiled them for a few hours until soft.

Mix everything. First add all dry ingredients and shake it around until it's more or less mixed. Then pour in the starter miso. The miso is not really necessary, I think — some recipes use only water or nothing at all.

Crush the beans and rice. How much you mash it will determine the texture of the final miso paste. This is where a plastic bag is really convenient; with a bowl you'd end up with mashed bean paste all over your hands. For large amounts you can use a meat grinder.

Our finished paste. The texture should be fairly soft; "like squeezing your earlobe" is a common comparison. This is on the rough side, and should give us a nice texture. If it's too dry, add a bit more liquid.

Knead the paste into dense patties or balls, then push them into the bottom of the container. The idea is to get rid of any air pockets.

Press down on the paste as you add it, so you end up with a solid mass and a smooth surface.

Cover the surface with kitchen wrap to avoid air contact, then add a heavy weight. Put the container away in a dark, cool place. Done!

Now we wait. The main risk is getting mold on the surface (that's what the kitchen wrap and the weight is all about). Check every month or so, and if green or black mold appears just scoop it up, then sprinkle salt over that bit to stop it from reappearing. Some recipes call for a layer of salt on top, but that makes the miso rather salty.

In May, when temperatures rise, the process will start to speed up, and by October or November the color should begin to change. Once it's done, put it in airtight containers and keep it in the fridge. That's cold enough to stop the process, and the miso should keep for many months. We'll see if we succeed.

Monday, February 9, 2015


February already. Time flies. Things aren't going to let up for a while, so long, coherent posts isn't happening. Let's just do some quick check-in style mini posts instead. And since there's no particular theme, I can also post recent(1) pictures that I happen to like.

A Cat's Life
A couple of cats in the morning sun on Nagahori street on my way to work.

I failed the JLPT as I expected, but with a better score than I thought (97/180). I'll try it again in July this time, and start studying for it in late March or so. Should give me a decent chance to take it this time. Just have to motivate myself to actually study grammar...

Autumn Wedding
A newlywed couple is enjoying the autumn sunset at Sōrakuen gardens in Kobe. This is a pleasant little garden just a few minutes from bustling Motomachi.

My passport expires this summer so I renewed it last weekend. Swedish passports are valid for only five years, and you have to apply in person at the embassy in Tokyo, on weekday mornings only. Which means I have to, at a minimum, take the train up from Osaka, spend a night in Tokyo, apply, then return back home. Between the train, the hotel, one unpaid vacation day and the steep 20k yen application fee it makes for a very expensive passport.

Since I have to go anyway we turned it into a fun weekend trip together. We browsed the used bookstores in Kanda, shopped for kitchen stuff in Kappabashi — I almost bought a small drum coffee roaster before I remembered I'd have to bring it on the train — and met a couple of old friends for dinner. One afternoon we split up, with Ritsuko in Ginza while I went looking for a used oscilloscope probe in Akihabara. I found the probe — along with a bag full of useful tools and components.

It was a fun trip. I brought the Minolta SRT 101, but when I loaded the camera I neglected to make sure that the film actually caught on the take-up spool properly. The result is a roll full of no Tokyo pictures. Oh well.

Crab Pot
We go eat crab hotpot once a year or so at the Kani Dōraku restaurant on Dōtonbori. For some reason, crab is insanely popular among Japanese; I like it too, certainly, so I enjoy this as much as Ritsuko.

Ebisubashi bridge, Dōtonbori, view from the restaurant. The bridge is a place to see and to be seen, especially during the warmer months.

Dōtonbori canal.

This is insanely cool: a home-built — as in built completely from scratch — 6502-based home computer. He even made the case by himself. And all of it, from the board layout to the software, is open source.

"Askul" is a Japanese office supply company. It's a portmanteau of "明日来る/Ashita kuru", "Arrives tomorrow". In Swedish it means "Damn fun!". Every time I see one of their boxes at the office my day brightens up a little.

Ritsukos cousin, Ide Teruko, is a ceramics artist (ceramicist?), and we try to go to her exhibitions when we can. This was in a gallery in Kyoto last October.

#1 "Recent" only as in recently processed and uploaded. These are all taken last autumn.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


So, mid-January. This blog is turning into an occasional travelogue more than anything, and there's a few reasons for that. Deadlines are looming, and when I do have some free time I'd rather spend it with Ritsuko, read a book or study Japanese.

The Lettuce Awakens
It's mid-winter. But our small-scale lettuce farm (it doesn't get smaller-scale than this) is showing signs of life out on the balcony. Small, new leaves are beginning to sprout already.

But another reason is my new calendar. When I first became smart-phonified, I gave up on a paper calendar. It seemed so convenient to have it on the phone and on my laptop, and I could also synchronize work calendars with my own. But I never quite managed to become satisfied with it. I tried several calendar apps and tried to adapt but it just never really worked well.

I finally realized the problem: An electronic calendar is a timeline. Everything has a specific time and date, and everything is connected to that timeline. But I've always used a calendar more like a notebook. The basic structure is a note about something. One note can be anything from a single word to half a page of text and drawings. And one note might contain several datetimes — or none at all.

A two-day conference is a good example. I'd add the entire two days as a single note or two, with flight times and numbers, the rough conference schedule, talks I want to hear, hotel info and so on. During the conference I'd add notes about talks I hear, paper references, sketches or maps. Since I know when I wrote it down I can always find it again later.

How is a paper calendar connected to this blog? I need to practice my Japanese. And since I now always have paper and a pen with me, I've started writing a blog/diary/running notes in Japanese. Since it's in longhand, I have to actually remember how to write the kanji, not just pick them of a list on the screen. And with a pen I have to decide what to say and how to say it before I start writing. It's a lot of fun, and good practice, but it does cut into my time writing here.

We spent New Year in Hokkaido. But Ritsuko still likes to cook new years food, so we made some osechi-ryouri at home once we came back. Best thing about making it at home is that you can make just your favourite foods and skip the rest.

I'll post about our New Years trip to Hokkaido eventually. So far I haven't even developed the film so it will take a while.