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.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Spring? Summer!

Life is good right now. We had some happy family news just recently; and the weather here on Okinawa sprinted from a chilly winter, right through spring, and into early summer over the course of a few weeks.

Spring in Okinawa is a pretty subtle thing; the winter is just as green and almost as warm as the other seasons. You barely notice that spring has started.

I'm surprised just how rare it is to get fog here. I expected it every few weeks or something but apparently not. When it does roll in, though, it's plenty heavy. I was happy I didn't have to drive to work this particular morning.
Ritsuko is taking every chance to practice driving with her new license, so lately we've spent our weekends on the road. We've been visiting areas all along the coast, usually for lunch and a leisury afternoon in the sun before we head back again.

Almost all hotels and resorts let people use their beaches (I suspect the beaches may legally be public property), and many let you park for free as well. There's always a cafe or something like that around, and quite a few hotel restaurants serve lunches at very reasonable prices. It's still too early for the main tourist season so it's never crowded.

I'm taking a rest near Mirai beach.
It's plenty warm enough in April to sit outside in a t-shirt and sip ice coffee; on  sunny days you may actually want to get out of the sun to avoid getting burned.

Beaches all open around the beginning of April. I swam at Mirai beach two weeks ago, and it felt great. The sea is still a bit chilly but you quickly get used to it, and as long as it's sunny you don't feel cold. The weather is still unsteady, though, so you can't really plan for a beach holiday just yet.

Moon beach. Beautiful weather and no crowds.

Spring sea.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fish gratin!

Every so often — once a month or so — Ritsuko goes to Osaka while I stay here in Okinawa to work. It works really well; she visits our relatives and meets her friends in Osaka, while I can geek our with computer games and hobby projects(1)  here in Naha.

And I can cook any food I like for myself. Ritsuko is in Osaka this week; I had a can of cooked salmon at home, and I just realized that I haven't had a real fish gratin in years and years. It's easy to make and it's a very forgiving dish, so you can easily substitute ingredients. It took only an hour from stepping through the door to sitting down for dinner, and I managed to take a shower and hang the laundry as well.

I took some cooked salmon (you could just fry or steam a bit of raw salmon filet), about half a broccoli, two potatoes, and some milk, shredded cheese and fresh dill for the sauce.

Peel and boil the potatoes for potato mash. Meanwhile briefly boil or steam the broccoli bouquets, just enough that they soften a bit.

Make a bechamel sauce on about 150cc milk. Add the fresh cut dill, take off the heat and mix in the grated cheese.

Make the potato mash with the remaining milk, butter and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Make it a little toward the soft or runny side.

In a oven-proof container, spread the mashed potatoes on the sides.

Assemble the bits, with the mashed potatoes around the rim.

Add the salmon, in bite-sized pieces, then the broccoli in the center.

Mix in the sauce. Make sure no fish sticks out (it burns easily) and that the vegetables are covered with the sauce. The mash looks better without.

Pour over the sauce, and gently mix the sauce, the broccoli and the salmon so it's all covered.

Finished! I would perhaps give it a little bit more colour next time.

Bake in a hot oven (220°-240° or so) for about 20-25 minutes until it takes colour. It's all cooked already so it just needs mixing and heating up.

Dinnertime. A simple salad goes well with the heavy gratin.

It was tasty! I can't believe I've waited this long to make it again. The trick here is really that the fresh dill mixes with the flavour from the fish as it bakes. You can use any firm fish, really, but cod and salmon are common.

1. Not to mention practice the ukulele out of her earshot...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Beginner Drivers' Mark
My wife Ritsuko has just taken her drivers license. She took the driving test a couple of weeks ago, took the written test yesterday, and she passed both on the first try!

And as it happens, today is also her birthday! Congratulations!

Although taking your license the day before your birthday is not, perhaps, the best possible timing. Had she waited another two days, her license would be valid for a whole extra year before she needs to renew...

But no matter. I see a glorious future ahead of me, a future where I can sleep or read email in the passenger seat while she practices her driving :)

In other news, it's the end of February, which means that spring has arrived on Okinawa. Flowers are blooming, the weather is turning warm(er), and half the office has started wearing kariyushi shirts again. We'll be back to sweaty, humid summer heat again soon enough, but for a little while at least it will be pleasantly warm, dry and comfortable.

is a Chinese garden in Naha. Very pleasant and quiet. It's a perfect place to visit now in early spring, before it gets too hot and too crowded. This model and her photographer apparently had the same idea.



Pokemon Go player on his lunch break outside the Naha city hall.

Had an errand to run in Onna village over lunch, so I got a supermarket bento on my way back and had lunch outside by the seashore. Relaxing.