Train smushing

Meanwhile in Tokyo:

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Yosakoi

I took a little trip to Tokyo today to check out the annual Harajuku Omotesando Genki Matsuri Super Yosakoi.

Yosakoi is a type of festival dancing with traditional roots and modern influences. I had seen videos before and little bit in a parade, but I really wanted to see some of the flashy costumes and large-group choreography in person.

Alas, after my hour-long journey, this was the view…

There are several stages and hundreds of teams performing over the two days, but it was too wet for me to see much of it. What I did see was pretty awesome, though. I don’t know how the performers managed in the rain, but they were great.

This is what it would have looked like if I went on a non-rainy day last year:

At the gym

I decided to write this post because I’m sad.  haven’t been feeling well and missed going to the gym two days in a row. Woe is me. Well, at least I can blog about it.

I started doing gym fitness classes about 10 years ago, and when living in Australia, I somehow transformed into one of those people who goes to the gym every day at 6:00 in the morning (well, 8:30 am on weekends). I rode there on my bike, too. I didn’t become a real gym rat who spends hours on the weights every day, but I was there every morning, and thanks to Body Attack three times per week along with other classes, I started to feel moderately athletic for the first time in my life. (I’ve always been active, but not particularly athletic.)

There are many things I miss about Australia, but Body Attack and bike paths are among the most mourned!

Fortunately, however, I have a good gym right nearby our apartment, with all sorts of fitness classes that strike my fancy. There are only a few minor drawbacks:

  1. Chiefly: the gym doesn’t open until 10:00am!! The day is half gone by then!! I’m still an early bird but I have to wait for my workout. And the particular classes that I enjoy aren’t on until the afternoon. There’s a weird gap in classes from about 3:00-7:00pm, and I’m not interested in going later than that, so early afternoon is the only option.
  2. On weekdays, my workout comrades are mainly the 60+ crowd, which is totally fine, but it’s a bit different motivation-wise in comparison with being among the oldest patrons at my previous university gym.
  3. There are big gaps in the schedule between classes, usually 20 minutes to an hour, so if I want to do two classes in a row, I’m in for a long time there.
  4. The pool is soooo crowded.
  5. The gym is on the 6th floor and you can only get there by elevator. (I hate taking an elevator when I could walk, and they’re soooo slow.)

But overall, the trainers are good and there’s a nice variety of classes. Even though there’s nothing as challenging as Body Attack, there’s a similar cardio martial arts-inspired one (alas, only once per week!). Y and I have also started going to a boxing class, which is quite fun, but it’s hard to make it there consistently on Sunday afternoons.

ANYWAY, my point in writing this post was to give a little comparison between my current gym and gyms that I have frequented in Canada, the US, and Australia.

Here’s what the signs outside look like (it’s owned by a pro-wrestler, whose image also appears in various locations inside. Cool.):

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The shoe situation is, of course, quite strict. You take off your shoes to go in the locker room (which has bamboo or maybe synthetic bamboo floors), and there are public baths and a sauna.

Generally, Japanese people (especially women) tend not to go outside in workout clothes, so most people change when they arrive, and then back again when they leave.

Shoes that you’ve worn outside definitely CANNOT be worn in the gym. Obviously, this makes the whole experience much cleaner—all gyms should have this rule! People also take off their shoes when using the mats for stretching on the gym floor.

A related point is that the studio floors are swept after every class, and sometimes during the classes as well if it’s particularly humid. Every instructor sweeps and tidies up after the classes, and I even see them cleaning the fans sometimes. Gasp! This is a stark contrast to my, shall we say, gritty Australian experience.

The instructors’ behaviour is probably more formal than other places. They announce their classes and give a little summary over the PA 15 minutes beforehand, and begin the classes precisely at the appointed time (never early, never late). They also end right on time and then rush to the door to say goodbye to everyone individually as they leave.

As in other services and businesses, there are more staff than I would expect to see in other countries. There are a lot of staff whose main role seems to be welcoming people and hanging up signs. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I certainly notice it. (Perhaps the subject of another blog post.) I feel very welcome with the multiple greetings at the entrance and on the gym floor!

This being Japan, there are TONS of ‘please do x’ and ‘please do not do x’ signs all around the gym. I’ve treated you to one below that has pictures. Most of the others are just text, with the most crucial bits in red font (and many of them are 50% red font.)

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Otherwise, I can’t think of anything remarkably different. The equipment is the pretty much the same, except for a hilarious machine that is like riding a mechanical bull, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. (Too bad that I can’t take a video!) The types of classes are similar and the music is probably roughly the same, too.

So that’s a little summary of my home away from home. I’m developing a good vocabulary in words and phrases like: extend, raise, lower, front, back, repeat, 16 more times!

Shinkansen: zoom

One of the best ways to travel—out of all the world’s ways of traveling—is by Shinkansen, the famous Japanese high-speed train. High-speed, meaning that it runs at speeds of up to 240–320 km/h (150–200 mph).

I was lucky enough to take two Shinkansen trips this month. If it wasn’t so pricey (for example, $100 for a one way journey of about 300 km), I’d be on it all the time! The video below shows a bit of my quick journey through Aichi Prefecture.

Travel by Shinkansen is vastly more civilised than by air. Although it’s imperative to be on time (the train is precise to the minute and does not wait), you don’t have to show up two or three hours early for security checks and the leg room is massive compared to economy class on a plane. The ride is super-smooth, and you can buy snacks and wonderful box lunches (bento) on the platform, or just wait for the food trolley to come by during the journey.

My tip for first time riders is that you should get up early and wait by the door a couple of minutes before the train arrives at your station. Most stops are only a couple of minutes, and if you don’t get off quickly, you’ll be whisked away hundreds of kilometers before the next stop.

Another tip: if you are a Shinkansen (or general train) fan, visit the SCMaglev and Railway Park, run by Central Japan Railway Company, in Nagoya.

Tofu workshop

I am so happy that I found the lovely Atelier-Cafe in Kamakura, a lovely group that offers workshops on food and culture, particularly vegan cuisine and shojin ryori.

We went along for a party-style tofu workshop, which, in a word, was excellent.

The first part of the workshop included a lecture on the tofu-making process. Tofu essentially has just three ingredients: soy beans, water, and a coagulant, usually nigari (magnesium chloride, produced from seawater). However, the variation in different types and quantities of the ingredients, as well as the temperatures and specific steps in the process lead to significant differences in the outcome.

We got to a sample a special selection of tofu from across Japan, both kinu (silken) and momen (cotton or firmer). There were two more to the right that didn’t fit in this photo—so a great variety was on offer!

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The next part of the workshop included a demonstration of tofu cuisine in action, showing unique recipes to make western-style dishes with tofu. Everything was gluten-free and vegan (no eggs or dairy), for maximum enjoyment by almost anyone (*almost*, because one dish had peanuts, and of course anyone with a soy allergy would be out of luck).

After the demonstration, we got to EAT! and discuss the awesomeness of tofu and vegan cooking. The photo below shows the spread.

The top left of the table has “crisps” made from abura-age (fried tofu sheets) and tofu-hummus, made only from tofu, tahini, and spices (and it totally tasted like hummus).

The back middle is the most impressive dish, which was like a Spanish omelette, with potatoes, onions, tofu, soy milk, rice flour, and spices. Gorgeous, and so tasty.

The back right isn’t very visible, but it was a lovely Thai-inspired salad with red onions, cucumbers, and atsuage-tofu (tofu fried around the edges) with a gentle chili sauce and peanuts.

The dish being laid out at the right of the photo is a feta and olive salad, except that the feta is tofu (momen-dofu) that was prepared by sprinkling salt, and then dressed with herbs, olive oil, and olives.

At the front is the “sandwich” station, with sandwich pockets made from fried tofu sheets, veggies, rice, and “egg salad” made with cumin, tofu, and dill (and probably some other stuff, but I forget).

There was also a black sesame mousse-like dessert (ok, I had two) and baked wafers made from okara (the fluffy tofu matter leftover from the tofu-making process).

The food was all amazingly delicious. And the learning aspect was also great, both in terms of traditional processes as well as versatile recipes and conversations about good food (ethically and nutritionally). Atelier-Cafe, I will be back for more.

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Shojin ryori in Kamakura

If you’re ever in the Kanto region (that is, Tokyo-ish), I recommend visiting Kamakura. It’s less than 30 minutes by train from Yokohama station, so about an hour or less for us.

Kamakura was the seat of the shoguns who ruled Japan (having taken power from the emperor) from roughly 1190-1333, which thus is called the Kamakura period. The city is partially surrounded by step hills, so it was strategically protected, and consequently still very beautiful. Plus there are beaches! Kamakura was also important in the development of Japanese Buddhism, and so there are lots of historic temples and the famous Amida Buddha statue.

buddha

Anyway, I will write another post about Kamakura more generally, but for now, I want to write about a very special trip that we took to have shōjin ryōri.

Shōjin ryōri is the traditional cuisine of Japanese Buddhist monks and does not include any animal products. One description I read said that the monks do not eat anything “that flees when chased.” The food is based on seasonal vegetables and spices that nourish the body in accordance with the season (e.g., to warm, cool, fortify against cold). Some of the most characteristic staples include sesame oil, nuts, miso, kombu and wakame seaweeds, soy in various forms, kanten (agar-agar powder) and of course fresh veggies, although garlic and onions are not used. Here is a description in English from the restaurant that we went to. Another explanation from Kikkoman is also interesting.

So what did we eat? See below!

Descriptions in the order that the food was served

Top left photo

  • Left plate
    • Kinpira (thin veggies with sesame oil) with green peppers and konnyaku (in the bowl)
    • Juicy eggplant with miso
    • Sweetened black bean
    • “Loaf” of okara (powder from tofu making) with beans
    • Garnished with a stalk of ginger
  • Top right bowl
    • Kabocha (pumpkin), green beans, yomogi fu (mugwort), yuba (sheets from tofu making), fu (wheat gluten)
  • Bottom left bowl
    • Greens with sesame seeds
  • Middle bowl
    • Goma dofu (sort of like tofu, but actually made with smashed sesame seeds), garnished with ginger. Very smooth.
  • Front right bowl
    • Cucumber with tiny chopped nagaimo (sticky potato)
  • Across the way on Y’s side, you can see a small ball of rice with red beans: our special extra dish as we were celebrating our wedding anniversary (4+ months late)

All I can say about all of this is that it was gorgeous.

Top middle photo

  • Fried yuba, with soy sauce and a secret pouch with some delicious roasted veggies (not sure what they were). Yuba is a sheet of tofu that forms during the tofu making process. It’s very smooth and light, once called in the New York Times, tofu’s “sexy and elegant cousin.” Very tasty. I had never had fried yuba before, and although initially it was delicious, this portion was just a bit too much of a good thing.

Top right

  • This was the most delicate of the courses, with baby corn, myoga (similar to ginger), shiitake, asparagus and okra (hiding a bit in the photo), and grated nagaimo (those sticky potatoes again)

Bottom left

  • Back to bolder flavour again with a miso sauce and wakame seaweed, fuki (butterbur, looks like celery in the photo), a thin sheet of fried tofu, and the best part: lovely crunchy takenoko (bamboo shoots, sort of at the back of the photo).

Bottom middle

I was full by this point, but I managed most of the next course anyway:

  • Rice mixed with matcha (green tea) (front left)
  • Furikake, which is the generic name for rice seasoning. This particular one was made of wheat gluten and sesame seeds with a tangy, nutty flavour (top left)
  • Traditional pickles: daikon (radish) and plum leaves (sooo good) (small bowl in the middle)
  • Miso soup with myoga, greens (spinach or komatsuna, not sure) and maybe something else (front right)

Other types of Japanese food would rely on fish stock for many of these dishes, but shōjin ryōri uses stocks and seasonings made from mushroom and seaweed stock as well as soy sauce, sesame oil, etc.

Bottom right

  • Dessert! Fortunately it was very cool and gentle, and a perfect finish. Lightly lemon flavoured jelly (for lack of a better word) made of kanten (aka agar-agar powder), with grapefruit and pineapple.

I certainly can’t hope to replicate this at home, but I am now inspired to get out my shōjin ryōri cookbook, Enlightened Kitchen: Fresh Vegetable Dishes from the Temples of Japan (recommended!).

The driver’s licence adventure

Let me preface this post by saying that it could have been much worse. My comments that follow in no way contradict my gratitude for being able to obtain a driver’s licence in Japan without having to take a test, with language help, and with understanding staff.

However…get comfy, because this is a long one.

Day 1

So, on Wednesday morning, Y and I got up early so that we could exchange my previous driver’s licence for a Japanese one. Our prefecture has a population of 9 million people, and according to Y’s understanding, there is only one licence centre for the entire prefecture. Ordinary renewals can be done at local police stations, but new licences and foreign licence exchanges have to be done at the central place. It took us about an hour to get there (bus, train, walk), but we still made it just a little after 8:00 am, knowing that the services begin at 8:30. After locating the right section of the two (or more?) buildings, we were greeted by the scene below:

licence

In other words, essentially every “don’t” that there is in the user experience or even basic customer service handbook. This is only one section of the room, the main counter, but the theme repeats throughout the place. My favourite part is how all the arrows point different directions. Do you see the small red arrow pointing down? That’s the most important one, because the very first step is to sign your name on the ledger if you want to exchange a foreign driver’s licence. Why put that at the front with a sign that says  “start here” when you can camouflage it so expertly amongst other signs?

Some of the signs are handwritten or hand-corrected, many yellowing with age and disintegrating tape, kind of an archeological layer of signs pasted up when questions arose over the years. Some had English as well as Japanese, with the occasional Korean and Chinese.

Note the hours that the reception desk is open: 8:30-9:00 and 1:00-1:30. When you get up to the ledger, you see the polite sign below:

delay

Yup, it’s looking ominous.

As an aside, I do not “expect” to be provided with English signage in any non-English speaking country and feel very grateful if someone goes to the effort. And I definitely do not presume to criticise others’ language skills when my Japanese is so poor. HOWEVER, if an official government office is going to provide information English, please, for the love of Pete, get an advanced or native speaker to give it a once over.

Anyway, back to the main story. So we found the all-important sign-in ledger, which was accompanied by the useful information that only 10 people could be served per service slot. That is, 10 people in the morning and 10 people in the afternoon. I was number 12. This seemed just a little bit too ridiculous, so we waited around until the personnel started peeking out from behind their curtained windows just before 8:30. Y inquired and found out that yes indeed, only 10 people were served per slot. We were advised to wait around for a bit, though, in case one of the first 10 got booted from the queue if something was wrong with their documentation. Around 9:00, my name was called, and we got to go up to the window. An official looked over my papers and confirmed that everything was in order. Alas, I was number 11; only one person had been kicked out. We had the option to wait until 1:00pm or come back the next day. The good news was that I would be first on the ledger in either case. We wrote my name on the fresh sheet for tomorrow and departed. We spent about 3 hours including travel, but at least now I was at the front of the queue!

Day 2

So, we set out again with the morning commuters and arrived back at the licence centre just before 8:00 (in fear of somehow missing our turn). It was pissing down rain, which set an appropriate atmosphere for the whole experience. The first thing we did was check the ledger: yup, my name was still there. Phew.

I got called up to the front at 8:30 and submitted my documents. They were checked again, still all good. Phew. The staff person then took away my papers and we waited until someone came out to confirm the issue date on my old licence. Then I was called up again, maybe 30 minutes later and had to fill in a form with my name, address, birth date, etc. I can write my name, but alas, I can’t yet write my address in Japanese. They were nice about it and let me write in Roman letters. I then provided a photo that I had brought along, and the staff person used an awesome square-shaped paper punch tool to crop it to the right size and attached it to my form. And then there were more forms about my personal history. I got to read the questions in English and then indicate the answers on the Japanese form. E.g., do you have epilepsy, have you been too drunk to move more than 3 times in the last month, have you lost use of your limbs temporarily in the last year, etc. (Can’t remember them all.)

The next step (which I never would have figured out without Y’s help) was to take my form to the building next door. We went to a counter to purchase stamps, which is how the fees for the licence are handled. (You would think that in the land of vending machines, we would be able to pay money into a machine, but nope, there were real live people at the stamp counter.) We had to buy four different stamps with different denominations, two of which we stuck on my form. The other two would come into play later.

A machine came next, though. I must have entered some kind of ID number or scanned a payment receipt (I can’t remember) into a machine that looked a bit like an ATM or ticket machine, and then I had to select two different 4 digit PINs. To my chagrin, these displayed in plain text on the screen. The machine then printed out a slip with my PINs and a barcode.

Then it was back to the first building, where we were instructed to put my form (with stamps and photo) in a cardboard tray that stuck out from behind the main counter, which was all shuttered and barred again at that point, being after 9:00) The tray in question looked like a homemade cardboard in-tray, vintage ca. 1973. When Y tried to put my papers through, he saw that there was a little bell hanging down into the tray and he was confused as to whether he should try to ring it, or …? As he was fussing with it, a hand shot out from the other side of the counter (behind the shuttered windows) and snatched the papers before disappearing again.

That’s when I lost it. The whole thing was just too hilarious and I was laughing to the point of crying. Y laughed at me laughing and that just made it worse. I tried so hard to pull myself together so that I didn’t look too suspicious and unworthy of a licence, and with great will power, I managed to stop. But whenever I think of that stupid cardboard tray and the hand, I still just start laughing again.

Anyway, after I stopped laugh-crying, we sat down and waited for another 30 minutes or so. (Silly me, I thought we were getting close to the end. The order really starts to get fuzzy at this point, so I might have gotten the steps scrambled. I know at one point, we stopped for a snack in the little cafeteria, but not sure when.) I think the eye test was next. I got called back behind the big wall / counter for the test. They showed me images of a circle with a break in it at different points, and I had to say whether the break was to the left, right, top, or bottom. Then I had to identify the colours of lights. Fortunately, all the necessary words are in my vocabulary.

We waited for a while longer, and then the next step involved a staff member kindly escorting us up a flight of stairs where there was a buzz of activity with people taking exams and getting photos taken. I was directed to sit on a particular bench for a while, and then a staff member appeared and told me to go to a particular queue. Soon it was my turn, finally, to get a photo taken. I had to hand over my slip with the barcode (from the machine a while back) so that the photo-taking staff member could scan it. Then it was back to waiting in the first room again. At some point, maybe with the photographer?, I was given a blue piece of paper to which I had to affix my two remaining stamps. We were told it would be another hour or so for the licence to be printed. Well, at least it’s nice to have a time estimate.

Finally, at long last, they called my name and the number on my blue paper. I got to join a queue of other people with yellow papers who had been called at the same time. I think they were getting licences for the first time? I handed over my blue paper and got my licence.

Last step: log in with my PINs at the machine by the door to make sure all my details were correct in the system. I still don’t quite understand what the system is, but whatever it is, I’m in it.

And behold, around 11:40am, a mere four hours and 40 minutes after we set out from home, we could take the train back to Y’s work, where the poor guy had only 10 minutes for lunch before having to go to a meeting. (Thanks for helping me!) Check back in 3 years for an update when I have to go back to renew the licence! (The first renewal has to be done at the central centre, but after that, locally is ok.)

Fin.