The year of the cow
Happy New Year everybody! Let's hope the coming year turns out better than this one.
/Janne and Ritsuko
December already - time flies. Got the long-sleeved shirts and fleece jackets out already. And we will spend New Year in Osaka as usual, and that city is definitely cold.
Anyway, we've splurged on a new rice cooker. Our old one still works fine (we'll bring it to Osaka), but for a while we've had two rice cookers here. They're both the same size, made by reputable Japanese makers and have similar functions. But the older one, from Sharp, cost around 9000 yen; while the new Toshiba is about 25000.
The Sharp on the left, the Toshiba on the right.
The picture itself is with my Olympus Pen, a camera I've never been really happy with to be honest, and here you see one reason why: the white balance just never comes out well when the light is even a little on the off side.
The old Sharp uses a regular electric heater, while the Toshiba has an induction heater (IH). An induction heater can vary the temperature very precisely and almost instantaneously, This should mean much better temperature control for the Toshiba. Our guess was that the Toshiba would be much better at keeping rice warm without burning it or drying it out, but that fresh boiled rice would be much the same.
We set both to cook half a cup (~80g) of rice, each with the recommended amount of water. The old cooker needs quite a bit more water than the new one. While cooking the Toshiba produced very little steam, much less than the Sharp. The Sharp keeps the rice at a boil, producing lots of steam, while the Toshiba induction heater can keep the pot just barely simmering.
Cooking done — they took about the same time — we sat down, each with two small bowls of rice. Was there a difference?
A simple dinner, with two bowls of rice. And, again, the colour balance is off.
In a word, yes. The flavour is the same; no surprise there. But the texture is very different. The grains from the Sharp have a nice firm center but a somewhat mushy surface. The Toshiba rice has a completely uniform texture that is pleasantly firm all the way through.
There's nothing wrong with the rice froim our old cooker; we've been happy with it so far, and we will continue to use the cooker back in Osaka. But the texture from the Toshiba is just obviously better. I didn't really expect that.
You can of course adjust the amount of water for the Sharp. But even if you do, it can't quite produce that even result we get from the Toshiba. Perhaps it's partly because the grains bounce around and rub off each other as they boil, while they lay still in the Hitachi. Now I'm curious if a 50K rice cooker might be even better...
Working at a research institute has some occasional benefits. One is the ready availability of materials and expertise for all kinds of lab work and testing.
The overall infection rate in Japan has been very low, and with a very few exceptions, people are still not travelling from abroad at this time (the ones that do face a two-week quarantine).
OIST has developed clinical PCR testing capability, and in addition to offer it to help the Okinawan prefecture, OIST also uses it internally. If you have travelled outside Okinawa on OIST business you are required to take the PCR test. But you are also strongly encouraged to take the test if you travelled privately, or if you suspect you may have been exposed for some other reason. We've had two cases at OIST so far, but thanks in part to the prompt testing, no spread within the university.
The PCR test kit. You receive it at the guard hut at the entrance, take it to your car or bathroom, do the test, then drop it into a collection box. The whole thing takes five minutes.
The test is simple: no cotton swabs into your nose, but just a bit of
spit into a sample tube. You get the kit, collect and seal the sample
and record the case number yourself. You get the number by email from an
— I believe — automated registration process, and the result is emailed back, so the test result is
effectively semi-anonymous. The manager can clearly de-identify a test, but the people running the lab testing have no idea who the samples come rom.
The sample tube. You spit into the tube through the blue funnel. Remove the funnel, put on the cap and you're done. Easy.
The test is free (of course), but you need to take it three times: the first working day after you return you take the test, then work from home — you're not allowed into OIST. If the test is negative the next morning you can come to work. You then take a second test on the third working day; and a third on the sixth. That's probably more cautious than is really warranted; two tests would already catch all but a very few positive cases.
We spent our summer vacation back in Osaka. I hadn't been back since last winter, and had a number of things to take care of. But it's also nice to spend some time in a big city again. I really like Okinawa but it can sometimes feel a little cramped.
Itami airport, Osaka. Really, really empty. I seriously wonder just how long it will take for leisure travel — and all the related business — to return to normal levels. Years, likely, and perhaps it will never completely bounce back.
The city definitely felt a bit subdued. It's a bit like during New Year or Golden Week when traffic is light and many offices are closed. Most shops and restaurants are open but customers are few. Definitely a tough time.
Uniqlo in Shinsaibashi.
Ogawa in Osaka, at dusk. Neat colours. You get to see a lot of views like this when you get in the habit of running.
Big Friendly Duck was back to provide a little light relief.
When I returned (two days early due to a typhoon) I of course had to take the test. All three tests came back negative. Pretty quick and simple.
OIST has also been running an antibody test project. PCR tests look for virus RNA in your blood; that tells you if you are currently infected or not. An antibody test looks for antibodies to the virus and tells you if you have been infected in the past.
The antibody tests says nothing about whether you are currently infected, or whether you are immune. An immune response only means your immune system has encountered the virus. It doesn't mean that it is actually capable of fighting off an infection.
It's not immediately useful for the tested individual, but it can tell you how many people have been infected in a population at one time or another, and so it tells us a lot about how widely the virus has spread, how easily you get infected and so on. This was a research project, not a clinical test, and participation was completely voluntary.
This time the test was completely anonymous. You picked up a testing kit at random from a box full of kit bags. Each kit had a random ID number, and a QR code that lead to "your" page on the project website. There you got information about the project, instructions on how to take the sample and the final result. At no time could anybody figure out who you were.
The antibody sampling kit. An alcohol swab and a bandaid; a test tube for collecting blood; and an automatic lancet. You remove the safety plug (on the far right) then press the lancet against your finger. It makes a tiny cut that hopefully bleeds enough to give you a good sample. I had to struggle to get enough into the test tube.
The sample is a bit more intrusive than with the PCR test: you had to donate ~1ml blood. The kit included a small finger lancet so it was still easy and painless enough; my only problem — and I heard others complain about the same thing — was to get enough blood into the sample tube before it stopped bleeding.
Again, the test was negative. Probably a good thing. We now know that even a mild infection can cause lasting and perhaps life-long damage to your heart and lungs especially. But an asymptomatic infection with a strong immune response Could have meant a much lower chance of catching it again later on.
I haven't heard about the overall results yet, but with such an isolated group of people on a fairly remote part of the world I would be surprised if there are more than a handful of positive results at the most.
A long, long summer and a long, long year. After a very well-contained first wave of infections, COVID started spreading rapidly in Japan again, and especially here on Okinawa.
A small part of the blame might be put on the American bases; they imported the out of control situation from the USA, and some employees apparently decided that quarantine recommendations didn't apply to them, not when they could join large outdoor parties on their national day. But that outbreak was contained pretty well.
No, the main culprit — of this as of so many other Japanese problems — is the LDP-led government. The economy is tanking, here as everywhere, and after several earlier public relations fiascos (such as spending a fortune on badly designed masks people didn't want) and dogged corruption charges they decided Something Must Be Done. Something with public appeal; something that puts money in the pocket of their corporate donors; something that distracts people from misuse of public funds.
And in a pandemic, when the key thing is to avoid crowds, avoid unnecessary travel and staying at home, what could possibly be a better stimulus idea than a "Go To Travel" summer vacation travel campaign? Yes, they are simultaneously telling people to stay at home and giving a 30% discount on resort hotel bookings.
So of course people travel. And they bring the virus along with them. Especially to Okinawa, the premier summer holiday destination. But also the poorest part of the country, with the fewest ICU beds and a shortage of qualified medical personnel. We are now the hardest hit area in the country by population.
Fortunately, the government has been as inept at creating the campaign as they are with anything else. The whole thing has been a confused mess with contradictory information and no guidance for the businesses. As Tokyo infection rates soared, they added a last-minute restriction excluding Tokyo residents, with no plan of who would pay the inevitable cancellations, or any idea if such an exclusion would even be legal.
And as the infection numbers continued swelling, people sensibly started to rethink their vacation plans. Stores on Okinawa are almost as empty again as they were during the first wave of infections, and the number of rental cars on the road — a good indication of tourist numbers — have declined a lot again after the initial burst in June and early July.
Now the infection numbers are finally dropping slightly again, both on Okinawa and on the mainland. Turns out that people in general have the sense to take precautions and avoid undue risk, whether the government wants them to or not.
Speaking of which, the government is in turmoil again, as Abe has decided to quit. This is only about a year before he has to leave the post and call a new election, and less than a year before his last pet project, the Olympics, may (or may not) finally be held in Tokyo.
I wish I could say the reason is political; that he was ousted in some party power struggle, or that his several corruption scandals finally caught up with him. Indeed, some Japanese seem to believe he is quitting before he can get fired. But the reason seems to be both more prosaic and more sad. He has been visibly ill lately, and the announcement came just days after a follow-up medical appointment.
Abe has a chronic intestinal disorder; that's what ended his first round as prime minister years ago, and a lot of people speculate that this has taken a turn for the worse. This is very possible. But he is not actually leaving just yet; instead he will stay put until his party can elect a successor. He is well enough to continue to work for the time being in other words, but too ill to stay on until the end of his term in a year.
This could of course — as some speculate — simply be a pretext to leave; he has become the longest sitting prime minister, he has no real hope of accomplishing anything else of substance (the Olympics probably don't stand a chance), and leaving may take the wind out of the ongoing corruption cases dogging him. But this could also be the final political acts of a man who received some very bad medical news and is putting his affairs in order while still able to do so.
If the reason is medical there's no reason to be happy. I may dislike his politics, the corruption scandals and his lack of leadership, but I wouldn't wish a life-threatening disease on him for that either. I hope he pulls through, gets better again, and can enjoy a long healthy life out of the stress of the public eye.
A package! for me — I wonder what it could be? Oooh, it's a computer! "Pinebook Pro". It certainly looks very slick.
The Pinebook Pro in all it's glory. It looks and feels just as good in real life as it seems in this image. Thin and light, fanless, good screen, good keyboard, metal shell.
The Pinebook Pro on the beach. I'd hate to take an expensive machine to a place like this, but with the Pinebook I don't worry at all.
Compilation (left) and benchmark (right) of the POV-Ray ray-tracer on my six year old i75820K CPU, the four year old Lenovo X260 laptop and the Pinebook Pro. All run using two processor cores.
The Pinebook is about 4× slower than the others for compilation. It's about 2.6× slower than the laptop and 3× slower than the desktop for the POV-Ray benchmark.
The Pinebook Pro in its natural setting: a hip seaside cafe with shabby-chic furniture and a good selection of third-wave coffee beans.
An empty shopping mall in Osaka, from last time I visited. We were going back to Osaka again over Golden Week. That idea has been well and truly scuppered.
Sunset beach in Chatan, last year. This year the whole place is closed.
Cafe 21 in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. We're teleworking but we're not allowed to work from just anywhere. It's work from home or not at all, basically; channeling your inner hipster from a neighbourhood cafe is a no-go.
I drink coffee without my co-workers. But I do drink much better coffee, now that I have access to our own kitchen with a proper grinder, beans and so on.
Two kinds of home-made gyoza, with fried goya and shiso leaves.
It's never not time to bake cinnamon rolls! And now I have enough time in the evenings to do so whenever I like.
The fishing pier in Suma, in western Kobe. It was damaged in a typhoon two years ago, and never re-opened. It would be a shame if they let it rot; it's a fun place to visit even if you're not into fishing. For now it's a nice illustration of loneliness.
People are still pretty chill about this on Okinawa. Nobody is panic-buying toilet-paper for instance, so there's plenty to go around for everybody. More and more residents are using masks now - it used to be only tourists - but most seem to wear it just to make other people feel safer.
The local economy is fairly dependent on tourism and the loss of travellers has hit that sector very hard. Many hotels have special deals for Okinawa residents, so a couple of weeks ago we spent a weekend in Yomitan near Cape Maeda. We supported local business and got a relaxing weekend getaway.
The weather was sunny and warm. We took a walk along the beach, and the sea was warm enough to swim in already. Here a washed-up coconut on the beach that's become shelter for a group of hermit crabs.
A Common Rose Swallowtail butterfly.
Fishing harbour in Maeda. This sure beats winter in Osaka.
Going outside and getting exercise is usually allowed, and always a good idea. Do it alone and stay outside, and you'll be safe. This is from my usual lunchtime run around OIST.
"There's a swallows nest; please watch your head". Life goes on.
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.
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.
JR station and Daimaru department store in Umeda.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
We start with a bowl of cereal.
Add some coffee (low acidity coffee blend, a medium grind pour-over at 1:13 extraction).
How will it taste?
Osaka is as subtle and refined as always. Never change.
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.
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.
Traditional kaiseki dinner. It really was very good.
Japanese do like their crab.
A rain-soaked Misasa in early morning.