Thursday, February 27, 2020

Corona

It's Ritsuko's birthday, and this year we were going to celebrate with a concert and birthday dinner in Osaka this weekend.

Except the recent corona virus outbreak decided otherwise; the concert — like most public events in Japan — has been postponed or cancelled to avoid the possibility of spreading the infection. Tokyo Marathon already cancelled the general event for most participants (only the 200-something professionals will run) and there's talk about the possibility that the Tokyo Olympics might have to be cancelled or be held without spectators as well.


Nakanoshima at night. I haven't had a chance to upload (or take) pictures so far this time, so all pictures are from around New Year.

And today the government announced the closure of all primary and secondary schools at least until the new school year starts in April. They lose "only" two weeks, but that includes final exams for some schools and graduation ceremonies; and working parents are caught in a bind having to find day care in a hurry. Preschools and kindergartens are not yet closed but it seems more than likely if the number of cases continue to rise.

With only 171 domestic cases so far, and concentrated in only a few prefectures, more than a few people feel the measures seem a little premature, arbitrary and poorly planned. The conspiracy-minded might notice how a number of simmering government scandals have been pushed off the public consciousness; more likely it's about trying to get ahead of the developing situation. It's better to be criticized for overreacting if it comes to nothing, than for not having done enough if it does blow up.


Utsubo park, almost deserted. Except that this picture was taken around New Year — before the corona virus became more than a curiosity in Japan — fairly early in the morning, and there were plenty of people around if you just chose a different angle for the shot.

Concert or not, we arrived in Osaka earlier today and we intend to enjoy our extended big-city weekend. It's not as if we're in any greater risk of getting sick here than on Okinawa anyhow — Okinawa has three cases so far, while Osaka has one (all connected to tourism). With about 1.4 million people on Okinawa and almost 9 million in Osaka the risk is very low either way.

We do take common-sense measures such as washing our hands frequently (a great way to avoid all kinds of diseases), and avoiding hospitals (another great way to avoid infections).


We don't wear masks. Those paper masks can help prevent spreading it to others if you're already infected and coughing or sneezing, but they do absolutely nothing to prevent you from getting it. Even if they didn't leave big gaps, the paper is much too porous to stop bacteria, never mind a virus like this. It's like using a soccer net to prevent mosquito bites. What they can do is stop big droplets of liquid from spreading when you cough.

To put it this way: I work at a research university, where microbiology and genetics is the largest field of research. We have hundreds of people there who work professionally with bacteria or viruses on a day-to-day basis. Many of them have kids in the day-care center. And not a single one of them wear a paper mask at work. They know just how pointless it is.

What are those masks good for then? My exhaustive research (20 minutes searching the web) says they're mostly used for hygienic reasons, not to stop disease. If you're a dentist or a surgeon, you don't want to drop saliva, nasal mucus, skin flakes or stray hair onto your patient. Same thing when you work with food preparation or any other job where good hygiene is important.


JR station and Daimaru department store in Umeda.

We still have plenty to do here in Osaka. We have dinner reservations on Saturday, we already visited of our favorite places in Kobe on our way here, and I have some errands of my own to run. Ritsuko didn't get the birthday concert she expected, but my brother and his family sent her an impromptu song number instead :-) She loved it.




Saturday, February 15, 2020

Valentine's Day

The tradition for Valentine's day in Japan is that women gift men; then the men reciprocate a month later on "White day". That's twice the business opportunity for retailers I guess.

This year Ritsuko decided we're eating more than enough chocolate already (she's right). I don't really drink any longer so beer or whisky is out. Instead she got me this:



Three speciality coffees from a local roaster in Naha. Emerald Mountain from Colombia; Ethiopian Alaka — I've been into Ethiopian coffees lately; and Costa Rica Honey.

Emerald Mountain is a high grade coffee from Colombia and apparently limited to the Japanese market under an exclusivity agreement. Ethiopian coffees tend to be light and fruity or chocolatery with a lot of floral tones; we'll see what this one is like. Costa Rica "Honey" apparently refers to a processing method where the beans are dried with the fruit only partially removed. This will be interesting to try!

All three come from Churamame coffee in Naha. It's a good, very reasonably priced coffee roaster and shop; we often buy our coffee there.


Ah, coffee! This is Emerald Mountain (not that you could tell). Light bitterness, with balanced flavour and spicy tones. Very agreeable. I'd say it's a great morning coffee if it didn't cost so much...

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Kadena

It was time to renew my residence card, and to do that I had to visit immigration. In Osaka this would involve getting there before opening time, stand in line, then wait for perhaps hours before they finish your request.

Knowing this I went to Kadena immigration office (it's on my way to work) well before 9 am with the form already filled in. When I get there there's not a single person waiting. The doors open right at 09:00; I'm still alone so I step right up and give them the form, my old card, my passport and a picture.


Kadena town. It's not big - about 12000 people - but it feels neat and homey, even cozy. It's really too bad about the air base. Of course they can't choose their neighbours, and a military air base can't really help but being noisy and potentially dangerous either.

As I sit down and wait a couple of young American women arrive. They apparently want to change from SOFA status (that's what US military and dependents are in Japan) to a tourist visa - I guess their time in Japan was ending and they want to take some time off with sightseeing before returning to the US.

However, they don't speak Japanese, and they are under the mistaken assumption that if you SPEAK ... SLOWLY ... AND ... LOUDLY and drop all grammar this will somehow make them easier to understand. They spent several minutes half-shouting "SOFA ... NO. GO ... SEE ... VISA ... YES." to the increasingly confused immigration officer (who, by the way, likely understood English just fine). I would honestly not have understood what they wanted either if I hadn't overheard their conversation as they were walking in.


Still a fair amount of older buildings around. With the Pacific Ocean just around the corner, it's really a losing battle to try to keep buildings looking fresh. If bits are not falling off your house you're still winning.

I would have followed this exciting drama to its undoubtedly thrilling conclusion, but at exactly 09:09 the clerk calls me up to give me my passport and my new residence card. I was literally out the door in ten minutes, new card in hand. In Osaka I would still be waiting in line outside the office for the number ticket machine (so I could wait to submit my documents).

My opinion of Kadena has really improved a lot after this. Not enough to live there or anything (you have to really like aircraft noise at all hours for that), but still. I know where I'll go when I need to renew my card again in 2027.


This is how great it felt when I walked out, residence card in hand. The great thing with Okinawan weather is that there's such a lot of it. Including frequent rainbows.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A new Breakfast

I like coffee, and so I read r/coffee on Reddit on a regular basis. Last week one user posted that they like to have coffee and cereal in the morning. As in, coffee and cereal together, in the same bowl.

That made me curious. "Self", I said to myself when I read this, "why not try it? How bad could it be?" So this morning we tried it out.



We start with a bowl of cereal.



Add some coffee (low acidity coffee blend, a medium grind pour-over at 1:13 extraction).



Breakfast time!



How will it taste?

It tasted... Not bad at all. Quite good in fact.

When we were kids a long time ago, our grandmother would sometimes make us a treat by shredding a cinnamon roll into a large mug, then mix in coffee, milk and sugar. This is amazingly delicious (and I believe my brother still makes it for himself from time to time).

Mixing coffee and cereal is really the same kind of idea. It's not nearly as sweet, and you don't have the cinnamon and cardamon flavors from the rolls, of course. Instead you retain a lot more flavor from the coffee itself. Ritsuko feels this mix might be better still with an espresso rather than drip coffee; it would give you a stronger coffee flavor. I feel it was quite good already.

If I moved somewhere and was told that this is how we eat breakfast around here, I would have no problem having this every morning. I do feel that it's a waste of coffee — I prefer to enjoy it sans sugar and roasted carbohydrates if I can — but if you don't care then this is not bad. And if you are short on time, you could grab a mug of coffee and cereal on your way out and have a decent breakfast on the way to work.

Coffee and cereal does work well together. Live and learn.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Osaka and Misasa


Ahh, another new year! It didn't start great — I came back to Naha Monday and I've already burned our tea kettle, and some of our cheese got moldy over the holiday (not a disaster: cut away the visible mold, wash with salt water, wrap it and return to the fridge). Oh well.


Osaka is as subtle and refined as always. Never change.

New year in Osaka is the same as always. New Years eve was at Henrietta as usual (and fun, as usual, even though I didn't drink). Early in the new year I scored a couple of Lucky Bags at the Mizuno flagship store in Osaka — a pair of last years' Wave Rider shoes, insulated shell running jacket and pants, winter shirt, long-sleeve t-shirt, gloves, socks and a towel. All you need for winter running, for the price of a regular pair of running shoes. Not bad.


I guess a steering wheel will work as well. It doesn't strike me as that practical, but the bike did look very good. That was of course the point.


We spent most of New Year in Osaka, but we did go to Misasa in Tottori for one night before New Year. Tottori, for those that don't know (I didn't), is on the Japan Sea side, north of Himeji and Okayama. If the Pacific Ocean side — with Tokyo, Osaka and so on — is the front side of Japan, the Japan Sea side is Japans backside, with fewer people, many rural (and depopulating) areas and few or no large cities.


Tottori.

Tottori is out of the way from the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka area so it's not inundated with Asian tourists shouting and shoving people with their tax-free drug-store bags. Misasa is famous for its mineral-rich hot springs, including a few that contain radium — hard to believe, but at one time radiation was considered healthy (and to be fair, small amounts do seem to have some health benefits along with the increased danger).

Getting there is easy: there's a direct train from Osaka station all the way up to Kurayoshi. It takes about three hours. From Kurayoshi it's another 25 minutes to Misasa; the ryokan picked us up with their shuttle bus.

Misasa itself is a smallish village along a river valley. The main business is ryokan and hot springs, although Okayama university have a "institute for planetary materials" (geology department it seems) there as well. Makes sense to have it at a plane with so much geological activity I guess.


Izanro Iwasaki in Misasa. You can get a very nice run just by following the river, crossing it, then running back up to the village. Go far enough and you can return through the car tunnel instead if you like.

We stayed at Izanro Iwasaki. We chose it — and, really, Misasa — because Ritsuko stayed there with her family as a five-year old (not so) many years ago. The main building and the hot springs have of course been extended and renovated, and the garden layout has changed. But a few things, such as the stone lanterns, still remain from that visit.


Traditional kaiseki dinner. It really was very good.

What do you do at a ryokan? Relax. Get out of your clothes and into a yukata. Soak in the onsen, go for a walk, have dinner, watch the river. Let life quietly flow past for a day.



Japanese do like their crab.

I really like onsen (Ritsuko is more about the food). This one was split up into multiple baths indoors and out, and the two gender-separated sides were quite different. The male and female side is swapped every day (every morning at 5am) so you get to experience all the baths. More fun than places that simply duplicate the same bath design.

They have one steam room with radium water. The signs told you not to stay too long; good advice, and I skipped it altogether. My absolute favourite bath was one of the outdoor rock pools. You sat sheltered from the wind with a partial bamboo roof that let through the cold rain falling from above. The feeling of the hot spring heating your body and the cold rain cooling your face as you sat looking up into the sky was wonderful. It must be spectacular when it snows.


A rain-soaked Misasa in early morning.

I went running of course. The evening run the first day was fine. It was raining when I went out for a pre-dawn run along the river the next morning. When I came back I was cold and soaking wet from the rain. It felt great to wash up and soak in the onsen for an hour before going to breakfast.

We spent some hours in Kurayoshi before returning to Osaka. Protip: always go to a local supermarket when you travel if you can. They will have local stuff — foods, sweets and ingredients — that you can't find at home, and at regular prices. Also, it's a slice of life, and always fun to see. Cafe Source Mid next to the station was a good place for lunch and hang out with a cup of coffee.

This was fun, and we should probably try to do this again next year.


Nakanoshima, Osaka.