Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mabo Ramen

With my recent post about ramen and curry and all, I wanted to mention yesterday's set meal at our university cafeteria: Mabo Ramen. "Mabo" is mabo tofu, a Chinese dish that resembles chilli: a fairly thin, spicy meat sauce with pieces of tofu. It's eaten with rice and is quite popular here. "Mabo Ramen", then, is a bowl of soy-sauce flavoured ramen, but instead of bean sprouts and the rest, you pour a ladle-full of mabo tofu right into the bowl and stir.

Soy-sauce ramen is fairly dark, and the meat sauce thickens it to resemble hot, dark mud. The white pieces of tofu float merrily on top, not unlike winter-pale, overweight guests at a spa enjoying a mud bath. Suddenly the surface erupts as the bone-yellow ramen floats to the surface like some blind, mad Lovecraftian Elder God. Its multitudinous1 tentacled strands glisten as they blindly grope and envelop the first unlucky tofu bather, to drag him under, shrieking in fear, towards the unknowlable insane horror at the center of the huge slithering mass...

..and once I stopped playing with my food I tried actually tasting it. As it turns out, It's really, really good. The flavours complement each other very well, and the meat sauce gives the soup a thick, satisfying consistency. And it shouldn't be too surprising; after all, a mabo tofu and small ramen is a fairly common set menu at cheap Chinese restaurants already. Pouring them into the same bowl is just a natural next step. Anyway, I'm certainly having it again if it shows up on the menu at some point.

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#1 I really think "multitudinous" is a good word, and used far too little these days. It's not that easy to fit expressions like "multitudinous tentacles" into everyday conversation2, unfortunately. "Multitudinous whiteboard markers" just doesn't have the same ring to it.


#2 If you can, you're probably leading a more interesting life than I do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Autumn

It's finally autumn here. The leaves are starting to turn and daytime temperatures have dropped to 20° or so. The weather alternates between high, dry, brilliantly blue skies and leaden clouds with drizzling rain. The light is just a little subdued, the colors slightly muted. The evenings are cool and crisp, and the chill now lingers in the shadows even on sunny days. And all along comes the smell of damp earth and gently decomposing leaves. This is my favourite season.

We took a walk around Osaka castle last weekend to enjoy the end of summer. Turns out we were not the only ones with that idea; the castle park was teeming with people. Really, this is the best time of year to enjoy this part of Japan.

Picknick

This quartet was having an English-style picknick in the castle park. Apparently they don't believe in doing things halfway.


Neyagawa

Part of the outer moat - really a tributary of Neyagawa river - surrounding the park, looking northeast where a cluster of business high-rises adds some big-city ambience. Panasonic has a neat four-story interior and home-improvement exhibition here; you can while away an hour or so browsing kitchens, bathrooms, flooring and light fixtures.


Castle Park

There's several tree-lined roads like this one circling the park and they're very popular among walkers, runners and cyclists alike. These are Ginkgo trees; the leaves will turn a bright, clear yellow in another week or three.

They shed small, round nuts that are pretty good dried and roasted, but they're like ball bearings on the road and a danger to anybody with bad balance or weak legs. I head that the city only plants male Ginkgo trees nowadays, since they don't shed seeds.


Osaka Caslte

The outer northwestern castle ramparts and a guard building. The castle area may not look like much for European eyes accustomed to wading hip-deep in medieval architecture, but it's still a very pleasant park in the city center. Also, it's gratifying to see that not everything in this city is torn down and destroyed once it becomes old and worn.


Getting to Carnegie Hall

Saxophone player practising along the northern moat (he's in the big moat picture above too, along with another musician playing the banjo). I love the jazz-inspired clothing.

Homes and apartments don't have a lot of heat insulation due to the mild climate, but that means they're not very soundproof either - thick rock-wool insulation and triple glazing stops sound as well as heat after all. Amateur musicians playing brass winds and other loud instruments are often unable to practice at home. So you frequently find people like this gentleman practising in public parks, along rivers, under motorways or wherever they can without disturbing anyone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Curry vs. Ramen

Ho hum. The new Japanese government is still trying to find its legs and the opposition is looking for a voice; meanwhile voters realize the promised brave new world looks much like the present one. In Sweden the media tries to whip up early election fever to sell copy, but has only succeeded in giving a a small neo nazi-connected xenophobic party some free publicity.

Or in headline form: "New government constrained by inexperience, previous policies, economic situation" and "Fascist xenophobes still dislike immigrants, other cultures". What's next - "Penguins admit to liking fish"? There's nothing much worth commenting on in other words.

Let's take a look at something a little more inspiring. On Saturday Asahi Shinbun took an investigative look at something really important:

Curry or Ramen ?


curry Rice

Homemade chicken curry and rice with potatoes, carrots and mushrooms. Leftover curry goes great with udon noodles or spaghetti; you just thin it out a bit to make it more like a sauce.


Curry - Kare Raisu - evolved from Indian curries. Today it's a spicy stew in a thick, brown savoury vegetable sauce. You usually eat it with white rice and pickles, though curry udon (udon noodles in runny curry) is also quite popular. It really resembles a thick European-style meat stew more than anything else, and the only trace of the Indian dish is the spiciness.

ramen

Ramen at Kyoto station. Old image; for some reason I don't have any good recent shots of this dish; I guess I'm too busy eating it to remember taking a picture.


Ramen is Chinese noodles in a thick soup with fried pork, bean sprouts, green onions, bamboo shoots, boiled egg, nori, corn and any number of other possible ingredients. It's based on a Chinese dish but has evolved far from its roots - ramen is sold in China as a Japanese food.

Both are simple, satisfying comfort foods; the kind that hit the spot when you eat alone, when you work late at night, or when you're nursing a hangover. Both trace their origins to a foreign dish but now have little in common with it. In Europe, pizza, kebab and falafel, originally from Italy and the near East, are dishes much in the same spirit1.

Anyway, Asahi polled over 7000 people on their favourite comfort-food to see which came out on top. So, which won?

curry57%-ramen43%

Curry 57%, Ramen 43%.


Curry is more popular than ramen, 57% to 43%. On the other hand, while only 1 in 4 (27%) curry people eat it at least once a week, over half (55%) of ramen lovers indulged that often.

curry and ramen types

Popular types of curry (on the left) and ramen (on the right). Only types with more than 10% popularity is shown.


Which kind of curry and ramen where the most popular? For curry, more than a quarter picked beef curry, with pork, vegetable, chicken and katsu (fried pork cutlet) all between the 10% and 15% marks. "Real" Indian curry was chosen only by 6%; but then, it really isn't the same dish any more and can't be compared directly.

The defining ingredient in ramen is the soup, an oh-so-thick concoction of pig bones and vegetables that is slowly simmered and reduced for many hours. A dollop of the heavy soup is mixed with lighter, flavoured stock right in the bowl. Soy-flavoured soup came in first with over a quarter of respondents. Miso-flavoured and tonkotsu ("pig bone" - heavy and greasy) where about equally popular with the thinner salt-flavoured soup rounding off the list.

Me, I like curry and ramen both, but given a choice I prefer ramen. Hokkaido style ramen - thick miso-flavoured soup with corn and butter - is great, and so is tonkotsu ramen. We normally eat curry at home, but my favourite curry chain is Jōtō Curry here in Osaka. They do a fairly spicy curry with the meat completely rendered into the sauce that goes great with fried shrimp or a pork cutlet.


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#1 In Sweden, one of the most popular pizzas is the "kebab pizza", with the contents of a kebab - garlic sauce and all - spread over a pizza pie with cheese and tomatoes. Cultural mashups are great.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Konkatsu

The Japanese language has a thing for coining new words by abbreviation. A common pattern is to take one syllable or character from each of two words to create a new one. For instance, "結婚 約束" (kekkon yakusoku, "marriage-promise") is today abbreviated to "婚約" (konyaku, "engagement"). "京都 大学" (Kyoto Daigaku, "Kyoto University"), my current employer, is normally referred to as "京大" (Kyodai); other large universities tend to follow the same pattern. A common word among the students here is "就活" (shūkatsu, "job hunting"), which comes from "就職 活動" (shūshoku katsudō, "employment-finding activity").

Today I learned of a fairly new, increasingly popular word borrowing the same "katsu"-ending: "婚活" (konkatsu, "marriage hunting"), from "結婚 活動" (kekkon katsudo, "marriage activity")1. The longer phrase does not (to my knowledge) exist; the pattern is copied straight from "job hunting" above. Apparently "konkatsu" can be used in any marriage-seeking context; the tv show this morning was showing "konkatsu hair styles" and "konkatsu meiku" (makeup) which I assume is some style that makes you look eligible and desireable for marriage or something like that. A "konkatsu event" is a matchmaking party, and so on.

Of course, there's no way of knowing if this neologism will have staying power. Most new, trendy words have their time in the sun only to fade away again after a while. My guess is it will hang around. Marriage - or lack thereof - is a constant worry for a lot of younger people here2, and konkatsu is a useful and catchy term for all matchmaking and marriage-seeking issues. Of course, tv shows and advertisements blaring "婚活しよう!" ("Let's seek marriage!") and "婚活は20代から!" ("Marriage hunting starts at 20!") could well turn people off the word permanently - to say nothing of turning people off the idea of marriage itself.

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#1 To the best of my knowledge, the origin of "tonkatsu" has nothing to do with hunting pigs.


#2 You know, maybe if this society was not so single-mindedly focused on marriage as the sole approved form of partnership, it would not be such a major hang-up for so many people. The current idea of a formally married nuclear family with breadwinner and housewife is a very recent invention after all; it's not like you'd be giving up an age-old tradition or anything if other forms of partnerships would be legally and socially recognized.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pool

We saw the movie プール (Pool) last week. It's the same pair of actors - Satomi Kobayashi and Masako Motai - that appeared in Megane that we saw in 2007, and Kamome Shokudo in 2006. And though the director and script writer is different this time, it shares the overall mood and style with those earlier movies.

Briefly, the film is (and I'm not giving anything away here, don't worry) about a young woman that visits her mother in Thailand where she runs a quiet vacation resort. Also living there is a caretaker, a young Thai boy and an older woman. They talk a bit. There's a pool. And... that's it, really.

If this sounds suspiciously similar in style to both Megane1 and Kamome Shokudo2 then you're quite correct. The overall mood and pacing is very similar. People meet, nothing much happens, it ends. Sounds pointless, I know, but you sit and enjoy it all the same. Is "Pool" worth seeing? Yes, I think so. It's better than Megane, which had a preachy undertone; but not quite up to the level of Kamome Shokudo, with its whimsical sense of the absurd that makes it one of my favourite recent films. "Pool" is a solid, fun movie well worth seeing if you have the chance.

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#1 Woman comes to southern Japanese island for vacation, meets odd people wearing glasses.

#2 Japanese woman has a cafe in Helsinki, befriends odd people, makes cinnamon rolls and onigiri.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Utsurundesu - Fuji one-use camera

We went to Kobe a few weeks ago (as usual, I know - but it's a nice place). The weather was absolutely perfect; a cool, completely clear day with pure blue sky and just a hint of approaching autumn in the air. After lunch at a south Indian restaurant and inspired by the weather we walked to the mountainside and took the Shin-Kobe cable car up the mountain. For whatever reason, however, I had neither a digital camera nor a color film camera with me. Black and white film is a wonderful medium, but it's admittedly less than ideal for capturing brilliant blue autumn skies.

Kobe, again

Kobe, from the ropeway. At the top is a restaurant and a few souvenir shaps (of course), and a public herb garden that is quite nice, though a bit bedraggled from too many visitors.


Fortunately help was close at hand. I've often seen these disposable one-use film cameras for sale in convenience stores and shops, and here we had an opportunity to test one. It seemed like fun, it was certainly better than nothing, and if the results were really disastrously bad we'd still be no worse off than without it.

Film With Lens

The Fuji "Utsurundesu" single-use camera. "Film With Lens" is a pretty accurate slogan. There's several variants, with iso 400 film as well as 1600 and with various length of film. There's a waterproof version, and yes, there's a Hello Kitty one too. This one is 400 speed film, with 27 shots and a built-in flash. Cost is just shy of 1000 yen - about twice the price of just buying the film itself.


The camera is a snap-together plastic shell with a fixed lens, fixed shutter and a flash. The 35mm film is already wound out in the camera, and as you shoot you wind the film back into the canister. You don't have to rewind it once you're done, and your shots are safe inside the can if anything would happen. The camera store takes out the film and develops it as usual. They send the shell back to Fuji where they put in a new film, attach a new wrapper and send it out to the shops again. It's really a rental camera rather than a disposable one in other words.

Kobe mountainside Ropeway Station

On the left, Kobe's Kitano district, with its old European-style buildings. On the right, the ground station for the Shin-Kobe ropeway. The two pictures are taken with the exact same shutter speed and aperture. The left image is in direct, cloudless midday sunshine, while the right one is indoors, with only a shadow-side window and north-facing opening letting in dim light. Despite the large difference in light, the film manages to record both scenes nicely - though the indoor scene is probably near the practical limit for it, as the grain increases a lot.


This camera is a latter-day descendant of the box camera, like the one I wrote about last summer. It aims to be simple to use, robust and inexpensive, and like a box camera it succeeds admirably. The focus distance, the shutter speed and the aperture are all fixed1. The lens is 32mm - that's pretty wide. No focusing errors, ever; with a wide lens and a small aperture everything is more or less in focus. You really have no exposure problems either. Negative film has lots and lots of exposure latitude, so whether you're in bright sunlight or dim shadows you'll still get a usable image. The small flash is only needed for night-time shots or dim indoor light.

Isuzu Bakery
Isuzu Bakery, Kobe

This is the most portable camera I've ever used. It weighs 88 grams - less than even the smallest digital camera. It really is small enough to fit in your shirt pocket (and the light weight means your shirt doesn't sag). The shutter emits a discreet "clk" sound that you wouldn't notice a meter away. Apart from the flash there's no need for a battery or external power so you could stuff one of these into your bag and just forget about it until you need it.

And a fair number of here people do just that: they keep one of these in the car. If they get involved in an accident they may need to document the scene and any damage. And they use these not just because of the reliability and cost; film is seen as more trustworthy than digital cameras since it's very hard to manipulate a negative without leaving traces. Just keep one in the trunk and replace it every few years.

The results? Good. In fact, surprisingly good. The small prints we got (9x11) look just fine if a little contrasty; the shop probably use their "holiday snapshots" setting, with lots of color and contrast, when printing from these cameras. They'd be perfect for passing around to friends and relatives. As you can see in the images here they're clearly good enough for web use too.
 
Eagle-eye

A man observes Kobe from the greenhouse balcony.


Of course, "good enough" is not the same as "perfect". It has a cheap, plastic lens after all, so it flares a lot, there's plenty of light falloff in the corners (arguably not a bad thing for blue-sky shots like these), fairly low contrast and low resolution. This is a great snapshot camera, but it's a complement, not a replacement for a more serious camera if you are interested in photography.

Kobe Ropeway

Kobe ropeway in late afternoon. Fuji Utsurundesu camera.


Kobe Ropeway

Kobe ropeway in late afternoon. Pentax 67.


A quick comparison

The medium format camera and the 35mm instant camera pictures, showing the same spot at the same size. My digital SLR camera would end up somewhere in between, though fairly close to the MF shot in resolution. Good to know there's a reason to keep lugging the 6x7-format camera around.


I like this camera - and the idea of this camera - so much, in fact, that I'd like to have one like it for real. I'd basically want a reusable version of this camera with selectable aperture and focus, but still very simple and very compact; something I could throw in my bag and forget about until I need it. It would be a near perfect street camera, backup camera and small camera to take along on business trips. Ritsuko has a Canon Demi half-frame camera; it comes close, though it's completely dependent on its light meter. I'll see what I can find.

Update: My blog entries usually take a fair amount of time to write, and scanning film for the illustrations doesn't exactly speed it up either. Since I first wrote this I got myself a candidate camera that seems to fit my requirements. I'll write about it when I've used it for a while.

Sakaisuji Underground

Sakaisuji subway line entrance. Late afternoon, bad weather and under cover so it was getting fairly dark already. I used the built-in flash to brighten up the entrance and get the light level closer to the outside street. Grainy, yes, but I feel it enhances this picture.


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#1 The shutter speed is 1/140 and aperture is f/10 according to Fuji's online documentation. With a 400-speed film it's about right for decently sunny days.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama for Nobel Peace Price

So, it was announced today that this year's Nobel Peace price goes to Barack Obama, president of the United States. Let me be the first to say "Huh?!"

I'm perhaps naive here, but I assumed the Peace price was like the other Nobel prices in that it went to people who had, you know, actually done something. I mean, he's been president for all of nine months, and all he's done is basically to continue a withdrawal of occupying forces in Iraq that his predecessor already initiated. The Norwegian Nobel committee's handwaving about giving hope for the future sounds suspiciously like giving, say, the price in chemistry to some young researchers with the motivation that they're young and bright and seem likely to discover something significant in the future. Sure, Obama improved the prospects for peace simply by replacing Bush, but frankly, a moderately bright gerbil winning the presidency would have had the same result.

The Peace price has often been criticized for being controversial. This is not controversial however; this is just vaguely embarrassing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sendai

Cat, Monkey

Rain-drenched small temple. The cat had found itself a dry spot and wasn't going to move no matter who was taking his picture.


Sendai is a city of just over a million people near the eastern cost of northern Honshu. I was visiting Tohoku university for a conference. The weather was bad when I arrived, with the drab downtown drenched in a depressing drizzle.

The second day cleared up and the city brightened along with my mood. Sendai is sometimes called "the city of trees"; the moniker apparently comes from pre-war Sendai, but the city seems to take the slogan seriously so many major roads are tree-lined and leafy.

Shinkansen

The good thing about cheap hotels is that the view is often much more interesting than some bland landscape. This time my room was just meters away from the Shinkansen line to Sendai with a near-perfect view of the first curve.


I stayed at a hotel chain called Toyoko-inn. They're cheap but they're good where it matters. The hotels are fairly central, simple breakfast is included and the rooms have internet access. Other than that, well, you don't spend much time at the hotel anyways.

Discussion

This is the point of conferences. After all, you can download the presented papers any time you want; to me the talks are just an excuse for gathering people and having them talk to each other.


The conference - the reason for the trip - was fun, and I got to talk to some interesting people. It was all in Japanese - I believe I was the only non-Japanese there - which is good language practice for me if nothing else. It's still very difficult for me to understand presentations given in Japanese. Poster sessions are much easier since you get to talk to people individually, ask questions and get feedback on your own work. I normally prefer poster sessions to talks in English-language conferences too.

For Your Protection

Remember swine flu? I love what this picture tells us about face masks. The mask really is a visible signal that "I do care about your health; trust me, I won't infect you". It doesn't do anything to limit the spread of infection when you wear it under your chin - of course, it doesn't do much worn over your mouth either.


Beef tongue is a Sendai speciality for vague historical reasons, and you can find lots of beef tongue restaurants serving it every way imaginable. It's flavourful, tender meat, and beef tongue stew will just melt in your mouth with savoury goodness. Beef tongue sashimi, however, was a little too bland and chewy for my taste. I got some ready-made beef-tongue stew and beef-tongue curry to take home. There's a really good kind of tofu here too, with grated or crushed green beans mixed into the tofu; unfortunately tofu is not very amenable to transportation so I couldn't take any home.

Bookstore

Tohoku university in Sendai is pretty big, and like any university city there's a fair amount of odd book-stores. This one was odder than most - the picture is taken perhaps one meter in from the front door. The owner has to step out whenever someone comes in to browse. You have no chance to even glimpse 90% of the books here, which of course just makes the place more fascinating.


In all, Sendai was a fairly pleasant experience. A comfortable, convenient city, and I'm sure living there is pretty good. It does however feel a little bland, a little anonymous, a little lacking in color. If cities were clothing, Sendai would be a pair of beige slacks1. Perfectly nice place for a business trip, but not really a first choice for a holiday.

Taxi, anyone?

If you go to Sendai, don't worry - you will find a taxi. They have you covered in the taxi department. Taxi? No problem.


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#1 In all fairness Osaka would probably be a strawberry-pink and lime green striped satin jacket with enormous lapels, worn collar, torn lining, with a jaunty water-squirting fake flower in the breast pocket - ugly but fun and not easy to forget.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nakagawa dies

Shoichi Nakagawa, former LDP finance minister, was found dead in his bed today. He was 56 years old. He is the minister who showed up drunk at a G-7 press conference in Rome last year. Apparently he was an alcoholic, something which had been a long-time open secret among journalists and politicos - including his friend Taro Aso who appointed his to the post despite his condition. He lost his seat in the August election, and with the drubbing the LDP took as a whole, and his disgraceful end as minister he was not likely to rebuild his political career anytime soon.

Now, before anybody starts to speculate, the police has no definite cause of death but they have said there's no evidence of it being a suicide at this time. He'd been using sleeping pills, and an accidental overdose could well be a cause (especially if he took them with alcohol), or it could be a heart attack or some other unrelated thing.

I'm feel sympathetic to him no matter what his political views, and no matter how he died I feel sad that he had to end up like this. I certainly have no warm feelings toward the LDP, but that doesn't mean I automatically dislike its members individually. It is easy to ridicule and despise politicians - and many of them do make it easy for us - but the truth is rather more nuanced than that. Yes, Nakagawa was likely out of his depth as finance minister, especially during a world-wide economic crisis and even more so with a debilitating condition like untreated alcoholism.

Some spectacular exceptions aside, politicians are generally no more evil or wilfully criminal than the rest of us. They usually get into politics from a genuine desire to improve the country and the lives of its citizens - "improvement" can of course mean very different things, but political views don't become criminal or evil just because you disagree with them.

And politicians at higher levels are not incompetent. Being out of your depth - to be promoted to beyond your ability - does not mean you're a dunce. It just means you tried for a bit too much, and that you (and others) misjudged just how much you're capable of. Nakagawa may not have been cut out to be finance minister of the third largest economy in the world. But failing at this level is like failing in the Olympics - you have to be very, very good indeed to even get the opportunity. That he was even seriously considered for the job means he was a more capable man in his field than any of us chattering about it afterwards.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

A bit off topic, I know, but: I've long loved the ukulele. It's such an unassuming, friendly little instrument. I even started playing it for a year or so and had a great time1. One day, time permitting, I will get an ukulele and start learning it again.

Anyway, I recently stumbled on to The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain. Lots of good stuff there. But, I'm also a long-time fan of Sergio Leone's old Spaghetti Westerns and of Ennio Morricone's classic film scores he wrote for them.

So, a soulful rendering of "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" theme by ukulele orchestra is of course as close to musical entertainment nirvana as you can possibly get:



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#1 Unlike my neighbours, who had to endure a slow, badly played "House Of the Rising Sun" many, many, many more times than any human should ever have to. At least I wasn't singing.