Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Project for Awesome

The Project for Awesome is in it's sixth year, and is raising money for charities using YouTube videos as a way to get the word out.  Videos begin going live on Dec. 17th at noon, Eastern time.  Please check out the posted videos, vote for the ones you like the most, and the five vote winners will share the donated money.  Also, the Vlogbrothers are donating a penny for every comment that gets left for all the videos, so tell the video creators what you think!  Most importantly, consider donating to the fund at whatever level you can.  More information can be found at the links above.  Happy holidays, everyone.

Monday, October 29, 2012

One of my new neighbors

The view from my office.
 I'm taking suggestions for names.  I'm into alliteration. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Guam weather

All in the span of an hour or so. This is the view from my desk that I'll be losing in just a few days.  I'll miss it.  I love how the presence of the sun brings so much color to the world. 


Friday, September 28, 2012

Kabuki theater and sumo wrestling

Our biggest cultural event in Tokyo was our foray into kabuki theater.  We saw an early evening show, but it was a 3.5 hour affair.  Apparently when the Japanese do theater, they do theater. We heard about the performance from another random traveler in our ryokan and got a foreigner's discount on tickets.  It was probably the highlight of my trip, and not just because we got to sit still for a long time in a controlled climate after walking almost constantly for two and a half days.
Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre
The matinee was completely different than the evening show, so the troupe performed four plays that day!  Each event was a double feature; individual plays were about an hour and a half apiece with a 30-40 minute intermission. This poster provides an image from all four performances.
The seats really filled up before the show, but we snapped these shots early.  In the first picture, you can see a long wooden walkway that is part of the stage and is used for entrances and exits throughout the performances.  We rented earphone receivers, so before the show and during intermission we got to hear about the history and art of kabuki.  During the plays the commentary described what was going on in the plot, what the characters had said, or gave the historical background for the story itself.

The demographic of theater-goers seemed to be middle-aged to elderly women, some of whom dressed up in traditional kimonos.  We may have been some of the youngest people in the building, and the female to male ratio was likely 10:1.  This is really strange to me since kabuki has for centuries (since the 1630s) been performed by all-male troupes.  However, it started out as an all-women's performance before some Japanese head honcho thought that women should be neither seen nor heard.  The most renowned kabuki actors are those who have refined their art of playing a wide range of female characters. 

Kabuki is all about the actors, not the plot, so the pace is really slow.  Once I got over that, I really enjoyed myself and the over-the-top histrionics.  Apparently most plays are legends or historical accounts and are well-known by the audience, so there's not usually an issue of not knowing what's going to happen.  Kabuki also doesn't care about reproducing or representing reality on stage, so the costumes and the feats performed are unbelievable.  There were some great musical and drumming segments as well, and the musicians are a part of the staged performance, not hidden away in a pit as in Western-style musical theater. 

Kabuki is also a career you are born into, so if your father was an actor, you get to be one too.  The highest praise for an actor is to yell out his name, or even better, his father's name during a particularly impressive moment of his performance.  These posters are of the lead actors from our two performances, and both were amazing.
On the left is a picture of Mitsuhide, a soldier (true story) who was beaten and humiliated by his lord for very little reason (at least from a present day perspective), and who spends almost the entire play being loyal, grinning and bearing it.  After the jerko lord Harunaga pushes things just a bit too far, Mitsuhide decides to overthrow him and start a rebellion.  The moment when you know he's been pushed past his breaking point was amazing.  None of the battle is actually staged, however.  Remember, not about plot, just about giving the actor a chance to emote. 

On the right is the main female character from the second play, which specifically highlighted this actor's dancing abilities.  There were several amazing costume changes as the woman performed for the dedication of a new temple bell, dancing the many aspects of a woman in love.  She was, unbeknownst to the monks, the spirit of the woman who had caused the old bell to fall because she was separated from her lover, and she eventually turned into a serpent-like demon before being felled by the hero. The program claimed that this was the most famous of all kabuki dances and was considered to be the pinnacle of the art of the female role specialist actor. 

The sumo wrestling museum was next door to the very impressive Edo-Tokyo Museum.  Though we ventured to that part of the city for the one-room sumo museum, we did the whole place in about 20 minutes after spending several hours in the Edo.  Unfortunately, we just missed the yearly sumo tournament by one weekend.  The schedules for bouts (matches?) were up at the arena and there were ads all over the place.
The mural was outside the museum/arena, but the excellent cutout, starring an angry K, was outside a nearby restaurant that we initially thought might be the museum.  Maybe the guy holding the fish should have given it away.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ryokan Sawanoya

Our stay in Tokyo was in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan.  The Sawanoya was fantastic, and I'd recommend it to anyone, though there might be other places a tiny bit better located for public transit.  The staff were very helpful and accommodating, we had no language issues, and it was clean and reasonably priced.  Breakfast (though Western style) was hearty, yummy and about 300-400 yen (~$4.50).

Our room was very small, and you can see its entirety in these two shots.  The door on the left in K's picture leads to an entryway as long as the width of the room and just wide enough for a sink and shoe rack.   
The futons we slept on over tatami mats were less cushion-y than my camping thermarest, and only after the first two nights did we realize there were extras in the closet.  However, with a double-decker bed on the third night I slept well and didn't wake up because some part of my body or other had fallen asleep, as happened on night two.
Can you see these tiny cranes on the pillows above?
The best part of this place, though also the least convenient, was the onsen, which means hot spring in Japanese.  This word is also used to refer to the bathing facilities and lodgings around the springs.  I'm not positive there was a true spring associated with our ryokan, but the bathing facility was great.  The two rooms on the ground floor were shared by all guests, so that meant waiting for the "occupied" signs to flip to "vacant" on a few occasions.
To take the photo above, I stood in an entry room with a sink and some shelving for your things.  Through a glass wall/door was a showerhead on a very cool timer, a small stool and wash basin, and a large pool of hot water.  This is a pool for soaking and relaxing, not with bubbly massaging jets, and was excellent for rejuvenating tired muscles after walking all day.

While ryokans are hard to come by in big cities these days, I'm glad K exerted her will and convinced me to go this route for our first visit to Japan.  This was a great home base for our trip.

B and K pics in Tokyo

B on Electric Street

K with her new Rainbow Bear washcloth and camera

On our way through the park to the Meiji Shrine

The double bridge leading to the Imperial Palace

That white building is not the palace itself, but the public can't get anywhere close to the palace itself.  The gardens were also closed the day we ventured to that neighborhood.  The grounds here seem to be a favorite destination for lunchtime runners, and this is the most photographed spot in Tokyo.  I'm so glad we could do the most touristy thing possible during our short visit.

The last miscellaneous factoid I wanted to share was this little video I caught in a pet store.
Don't you want one?

We're moving to the zeach

Well, we lost the pink beach apartment.  So we're moving to the zeach instead.  The beach-front apartment adjacent to the zoo that I was a bit wary of several weeks ago.  It actually turns out the word I thought I coined to describe the strange placement of my new home is already a snowboarding term, formed from the compression of Zach Leach's names.  I wonder how often that happens to people?  There are only so many combinations of letters in our alphabet, after all, and no, I am NOT going to attempt that math. 

After much anxiety over the decision to live next to a hotbed of perceived tropical diseases just waiting to jump from monkey to human over the fence outside our window, and much anticipation over whether or not we were selected to move in over several other potentially interested people, we will very soon be proud residents of the Blue Lagoon condos. While I don't expect any visits from Brooke Shields, we aren't all that far from a Hooters, and several other points of interest, namely a yummy sushi joint, the largest K-Mart in the world (supposedly, though Wikipedia's source for that factoid is a Guam tourism portal), and a high school I've been wanting to go scout out. 
I'm not really excited about packing, as previously noted, but at least we don't have to schlep things too far.  We only need to move from point A to point B, or about 1.4 miles.  
I was also initially worried about living on the beach, what with typhoons and tsunamis being real things here, but we've got a little heft to the building, no thatched roofs or anything, so I'm starting to get excited.  We sort of figured, if we're going to live on an island, we should feel like we're living on an island. This place does just that.  Here's our beach, and a view of our building.  All those trees are hiding the zoo.

These are the southwest and northeast views of Tumon Bay.
The best things about this place are that Ripley is going to get tons more exercise, and K and I are hopefully going to spend more time outside our house.  Since we'll be that much closer to the busy hotel row with its shops and restaurants, and "winter" is on its way (so the temperature might drop down to the low 80s more regularly), I hope this will mean more time outside and more exercise for us too. Indoor photos forthcoming once we move sometime at the end of October.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Japanese art: wood block printing

One of the most amazing things I saw in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (which I would highly recommend if you make it to Tokyo) was a display about the art of wood block printing.  A lot of the exhibits were in several languages, including English, but this one was particularly interesting because of all the visuals that really helped to drive home the process more than a few paragraphs could.

What you see here is the entire display.  The final print is in the upper left, while the first is in the upper right.  The top row of prints is the composite produced after layering on each individual print with each different pattern and color.  The middle row shows what new piece is added to the picture, and the bottom row is the carved wood block itself.  Sorry the images are a bit dark and/or blurry.  I couldn't use a flash in the museum.
click on any image to enlarge for details

Here's a smaller section to give you a better idea.

Here's a wood block and what it would print:

Here's the before and after for the block shown above.

This is the final image, with a total of 14 blocks/prints needed to make this picture.  It was roughly 12"x16" or so.

Note that the Japanese characters in the scroll were also carved, as a mirror image mind you, in a wood block.  Really amazing.

We hope we're moving here

I know what you're thinking.  "Bethany, you just moved to Guam.  For heaven's sake, why are you moving again?"

As sane people, you ask very astute questions.  Why, indeed, would we want to move again?  I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.  And all of the people on the internet.  Suffice it to say our lease is up at our current place so the band is breaking up.  The good news is we'll be moving into a more private place, and hopefully this will help Ripley's separation anxiety since there will be fewer people for her to separate from on a daily basis.

K and I have been hunting for a new place for a couple weeks, and have gotten really close to sealing a deal on some new digs.  We've been able to work out a less than one-year lease, have negotiated having a dog, and have offered $500/mo under the listed price for the place.  The owner seems amenable to all these conditions.  The place has a new kitchen, lots of open space, and has a great view.  I'm wondering what's wrong with it that no one's snapped it up before now, but I guess we'll find out.  We should be moving in a month or so.

In the meantime, the only thing I can do to minimize the pain of packing and unpacking again is to focus on the view from our new living room/balcony.  The light wasn't great at this time of day to get the best shots, but I think you get the idea.  I wish I could fit them altogether in one panorama to give you the full effect.  It's pretty awesome. 
Sooo, it's a three bedroom place.  Any takers?  Free lodging, tropical island...

We decided to NOT go with the place that was directly ON the beach since it overlooked the zoo.  Not kidding.  We could hear monkeys and stuff from the balcony.  OOG.

This is the view from the WiFi enabled cafe that's right across the street from our hopefully new place.  You can actually see the cafe in the left shot and right on the left edge of the middle shot above. 
Tu Re Cafe porch
And finally, these pics are just for funsies.  My iPhone camera decided to go on an acid trip for two days, right before I wanted to take pictures of the view.  I had to go back and retake them to give you realistic images.  In case you're worried, my camera has come down now after hanging out in a safe room and not doing anything stupid.
Hooray for Apple forums. 

Traveling our asses off: Food in Tokyo

Over Labor Day weekend, K and I took our first adventure together in a long while and visited Tokyo.  As we've been challenged by some friends at home to "travel our asses off" while in Guam, let me assure you we not only saw a lot in Japan, but we quite literally had to have traveled some of our asses off with all the walking we did.  This post will be about what we did to replenish all those calories.

Episode I:  Food
I will in no way attempt to mimic a foodie blog here with recipes, etc. (though if you're into that you can find a great one here).  Mostly this is just some musings on the surprises and differences between my Western food experience and my touristy scratching of the Tokyo culinary surface.

Memorable food experience #1
After dropping off our luggage at our ryoken (more on our lodgings later), we found ourselves in a quaint little street market area off a pretty residential neighborhood not too far from where we were staying.  The smells of street vendor food were amazing, but after schlepping our suitcases quite some distance from the train station (transportation post coming too), we needed a place to sit down and take a load off.
We chose our restaurant because of the neatly removed shoes that covered the entryway and because we could see all the patrons were seated around place settings on the floor.  We had no idea what was on the menu, and after a brief interchange between K and a waitress, we decided to get the fixed menu for 1000 yen (or roughly $12-13 each).  As it turned out, this was the best meal for the price during our entire stay.
We had incorrectly assumed at the door that we'd chosen a Japanese restaurant.  We quickly reevaluated, thinking we were perhaps eating Turkish or some other Middle Eastern type of fare based on the dresses hanging from the walls, the camel at the food pick-up window, and the large blue evil eye charm that we saw all over Greece two years ago.  Currently I'm leaning toward Iranian after doing some image searching for flags online. 
Regardless of where the food was from, the fixed menu included soup, a lamb stew (an animal I don't usually like, but that was amazing), a chickpea dish, rice, naan, a green salad with an egg salad side, and to drink, tea and mango juice.  All this food was in front of us within two minutes of sitting down.  (Did you hear that, Guam?  Two minutes!)  In addition, servers came around with platters to serve us other "finger food" items - dates, fried potato balls, and a filo dough jelly roll-like item.  
Dinner that night was much more complicated in the hustle and bustle of downtown Ueno, and we tried three restaurants before our language ignorance allowed us to gain sustenance at a noodle house.  Choosing your meal from a picture menu can be a bit scary at first, but it didn't take long to roll with it.  

Memorable food experience #2 
Growing up in the household of a hunter/fisher, I've had plenty of fresh-to-my-plate food in my time.  Of course at the age of eight or so, you're not too excited, either emotionally or gustatorially, to eat Bambi, Thumper, or any of their friends, though as an adult I've paid good money for venison and rabbit in restaurants and have been very impressed.  Probably the freshest food I experienced growing up was trout - from stream (or stocked lake) to plate within hours.  I had fewer emotional issues there, but I still don't like the taste of white, flaky fish.  

But sushi - now there's a food I can sink my teeth into.  And when it comes to sushi, of course you want super fresh.  So we went to the Tsukiji fish market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world.  K had been there during her first trip to Tokyo and managed to go to the frozen tuna auction (that's how they kill the bacteria/parasites for sushi - freeze for at least 24 hours), which starts at 5 AM.  The thought of getting up that early when I'm not on vacation is painful, and there was no guarantee we'd be allowed in since they limit viewers to 140 each day, first come first served.  So I decided to pass on that aspect of sightseeing, though Wikipedia has a nice post-auction photo, shown here.
While we didn't see the bidding on the huge tuna, there was plenty of other fish for sale to see.  We got a map of the market from a security guard who cautioned us to avoid off-limits areas, to ask permission of vendors before taking photos, and to stay out of their way.  They weren't tourist attractions, they were working.  The dark grey areas on the map below were the off-limits zones, and anything circled we were allowed to see.  He was a bit intimidating, and since everyone looked so busy, I took a lot fewer pictures than I normally would have. 
(click for larger image)
Most of the market was cramped warehouse space with tons of really narrow aisles.  Each vendor had stacks of boxes of fruits and veggies in the produce area, or a variety of fish or other sea critters, sometimes in bins in water, sometimes still alive and sometimes still frozen.
It makes sense that these people need a lot of ice, but it hadn't occurred to me what that looked like until we saw the ice truck.  We saw a few individuals transporting large fish on these flatbed handtrucks too, but most of the moving around had finished by the time we got there. The market is shut down by 1 PM since they all start at three in the morning. 
 This is my favorite photograph of the entire trip - credit K.
Just a few seconds after she snapped this, someone came out, picked up the fish head, and took it inside.  It's unclear whether there was still some good meat in it or not, but we did watch a fishmonger cutting out surprisingly large pieces of yummy looking tuna from another head just minutes before.
So how does the ginormous frozen tuna eventually make it to your plate?  The fish are cut into more manageable pieces using a band saw. 
This gentleman appeared to be sorting live, surprisingly colorful shrimp by size into the green trays.
The only picture I specifically went back to snap, after K asked permission, was this one. 
I've been on the hunt for an octopus while diving in Guam for weeks now, all in vain.  They are elusive critters, often superbly camouflaged, and they hide in tiny holes.  How people find and catch them for eating is a mystery.  This many octopi in one place was sort of crazy to me.

All fish exposure in the market came after we'd had our delicious, and quite large sushi breakfast.  Perhaps this was better for us, though I was more fascinated than upset by anything I saw.  This is the storefront of the restaurant we chose, really for no other reason than it had a nice picture out front and no line, unlike several other stores we passed.  Usually that's a bad sign in the States, but I figured we couldn't go wrong here.  The place was no wider than the doors to the end of the white banner, and most of that was behind-the-counter space for the sushi chefs.  The counter we sat at seated eight to ten people.
We chose from another set menu and both got option D for 2800 yen.  Our food came piecemeal and we ate it as we went, so there's no one picture of the whole spread, but this meal afforded us twelve different pieces of sea creature, and at $35 American seemed pretty reasonably priced. 

I think it's a bit strange that I can remember how my attitude about sushi changed over the years.  I'm sure I can't recount this for any other type of food, so it must mean something.  My very first sushi exposure was during college when a friend practically dragged me to Taipei and Tokyo in Northampton.  She was from the Pacific Northwest (Seattle?), grew up on sushi, and was adamant I try it after she found out I never had.  At the time, the idea of eating raw fish creeped me out, but she was determined to convert me.  I hope that woman got her toaster, because sushi has pretty much grown to be my favorite food.  

My move to California allowed me to gradually become a sushi fan, and as I began to figure out what I liked, I also became bolder, always trying one new type of fish every time I went out.  Essentially a complete stranger introduced me to another sushi restaurant, the Mikado, which used to be on Grand Ave. in my "current" Oakland neighborhood.  That stranger was K, and it was the first time we hung out as friends, so was our first "date," so to speak.  That place became my go-to cheap-but-good sushi spot until it went out of business.  

I can also say that my worst food experience ever was the time I tried a piece of sea urchin at the Mikado with K.  Let me be clear.  Worst. Sushi. Ever.  It tasted like what I imagine the floor of a barn tastes like.  I almost lost all the rest of the meal I'd eaten and couldn't swallow what was in my mouth.   Since all other sushi at this shop was always pretty good, I just figured that's what sea urchin was supposed to taste like.  Some people have weird preferences, right?  Well, in Tokyo I sort of felt I'd come full-circle in some odd way, so I decided to try the sea urchin again.  After all, it came with set menu D.  While the echinoderm wasn't my favorite, mostly for texture reasons, I was pleasantly surprised and mostly relieved.  K was too scarred from the past (kind of like Hawaii) and passed.  Here's the sea urchin I had before it was wrapped in seaweed and served.  It was one of the first pieces we got.
Our serving plate was some sort of long, wide leaf.  There was no wasabi on the plate or table (apparently this is a Westernization of the sushi experience), but the chef had all the right amounts in his creations, and surprised us by opening our sinuses on one piece in particular.
I think we got three different "cuts" of tuna (on the left), all slightly different in color and fat content.  It's not my favorite at home, but this stuff was like buttah.
To give you a sense of scale (ha!), this is about half the length of the counter.  The man below spent our entire meal filleting some smallish fish (guess he was the sushi sous-chef), while the man above made our food. 
The eel, one of my favorites, was a very clean, stripped down version of what I'm used to (I ate it before K could record it, but I think that's what this photo is).  Light on the sauce but filled with yummy eel-y goodness.
I left full, and K couldn't finish.  Best.  Sushi.  Ever.  (Except for maybe Sushi Ran in Sausalito.  Anyone up for joining me in early March?)

Memorable food experience #3 
After stuffing ourselves for breakfast and wandering around what little we could see of the Imperial Palace grounds, we headed back to the Shinbashi Enbujō kabuki theater not far from the fish market.  We'd missed the matinee by just minutes, so we returned for the 4 PM show.  I'll save commenting on the theatrics for a later post, but I have to comment on the food.  Since the shows can be very long (think double feature), there is a long intermission where most people eat food at their seats.  A small shop across the street and a few tables in front of the theater sold bento boxes for just this purpose.  Here's K with her proud dinner.
It was fun to watch everyone bust out their snacks together, K and 80% of the theater with her.

Miscellaneous musings, some about food 
One day in a moment of weakness, tiredness, and lost-ness, we popped into a Mister Donut, a store I never thought I'd see again, so we could rest and look at our eighteen maps to figure out where we were and how to get home again.  I remember the joy of chocolate covered donuts at my Nana and Pappap's house during my childhood, and the store we'd always pass on highway 61 as we drove through Pottsville.  And singing the Mister Donut jingle.

"Hey, mister that's a donut.  
Hey, mister that's a Mister Donut donut.  
Hey, mister that's a donut.  
Hey, mister that's a Mister Donut donut.  
Hey, mister that's a Mister Donut dooooonut!"  
At some point that store turned into a Dunkin' Donuts, and lost its sparkle.  I remember being very upset.  You can imagine my delight at finding this place while wandering around.  Unfortunately, my Tokyo chocolate-covered donut was Mikado-sea-urchin-bad.  At least we got unlost.

However, the plethora of cheap vending machines more than made up for the doughnut disappointment (I have to stop spelling it the other way).  I'm not quite sure how the city manages it.  There must be millions of drink machines in the city.  They're on just about every block, on the streets, in the train stations, on the train platforms, just ubiquitous.  Always full.  What you can't find is a trash can.  You're more likely to find a recycling bin - with no trash in it.  And yet, the city is impeccably clean.  Why can't we all be as responsible for ourselves as the Japanese are?
Because of the options in the machines (no soda, mostly teas and water), I also became a fan of milk tea, and had at least one a day as we walked from our ryoken to the bus stop.  The first time was to buy something to break our bills for correct bus fare, but they became a bit addictive.  I may have to find a local shop on Guam to satisfy my cravings.  The ice cream machine in the subway station was also perfect when we came across it, tired, hot, and a bit peckish after a long day of sightseeing.  The ice cream sandwich we got was wrapped in what I can only call a rectangular cone.  So many fun things we don't have at home.
While we did take some leaps of faith at times by buying things based on a small thumbnail picture on a menu, here are some things we decided NOT to try while in Tokyo.  The first is what I can only assume was squid jerky based on the icon on the package, and the second was a vending machine beverage called Pocari Sweat.  The latter item confuses me entirely, because if it's bottled sweat from a pocari (whatever that is), eww, and if not, it's just a really bad marketing choice or translation issue. 
As you might have guessed, it's the Japanese/Filipino equivalent of Gatorade.  The fine print on the bottle claims that "with the appropriate density...close to that of human body fluid..." it's great at replacing your electrolytes.  I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the density's not the big thing here.  Of course, they haven't really specified which body fluid we're talking this drink is more and more appetizing the longer I think about it. 

For four days I was both amused and frustrated by my ignorance of the Japanese language.  For example, I can imagine this restaurant might serve both beef and cat, and while it was worth a quick chuckle when I snapped the picture, we spent a lot of time trying to communicate with people in the train stations, theater, stores, taxis and most notably restaurants, only sometimes to positive outcomes. 
I feel incredibly lucky that we were able to navigate the largest city in the world for four days, 5000 miles from home, knowing absolutely no Japanese, and that we had such a great time.  I felt pretty embarrassed most of the time, but never felt unsafe.  The people we met were gracious, went out of their way to be helpful, and a large percentage of them knew English.  Arigatō, Tokyo.