last updated September 30, 2005

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Posted by stupot at 07:02 PM Friday 30 Sep

a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down

I pass this fig tree every morning on the way to work and even if I forget about it, I'm reminded by a whiff of the creamy, almost ripe fruit which is a delight to the nostrils.

a block further on though is goya - a totally different kettle of fish. goya is, for some, another odd looking and foul tasting vegetable. with many a food intolerence, I'm simply a beggar who isn't a chooser and if I don't react to it - I'll generally eat it. to me goya tastes fine. I spotted this handsome specimen on a vine on the way to work the other day and it got me thinking about why we actually eat it. bitter melon, it's english pseudonym, goes a bit further to describing the intense flavour of the food we usually eat in chanpuru - a tofu and pork stir-fry dish.

but there's more to this than just dinner. goya has recently been the subject of a lot of medical research and in the Philipines and India it is already used as an anti-diabetic drug, lowering blood sugar levels with an insulin-like chemical. it's also good for recovery from viral infections and is even used in the US as an alternative therapy for AIDS.

so next time you pig out on a carton of ice cream - you might just want to finish off with a big ugly gherkin. itadakemasu.


Posted by stupot at 07:00 PM Friday 30 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 07:48 PM Thursday 29 Sep

roll up, roll up....

I remember very well noticing supplement tonics the first time I came to Japan. there's something very japanese about them in the fact that they are immediate and they suit modern living perfectly: if you are about to keel over from too much work, you can hold out a hand and you should be able to reach one - they are everywhere. batteries for the urbanite - the salaymans kryptonite. you can pay up to 10 of your british pounds for a classy, all-singing-all-dancing, herbal chinese number or you can just part with 100 yen and get some juice with vitamins and caffiene in it like I do.

there is something definitely appealing about the olde worlde brown bottle, like some miracle cure from the mid-west, a hundred years ago. this is old skool red-bull - who needs sulph when you've got a starbucks and a vending machine near by? chemists, the country over, have a fridge packed with these foul smelling little beauties. they kind of remind me of some of the odd tasting sweets I grew up on - like a bastard child of 'kola-kubes' and 'parma-violets', if you will. the main difference is that these drinks claim to be good for you, and because of the packaging I fall for it - hook, line and sinker.


Posted by stupot at 07:41 PM Thursday 29 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 12:47 AM Thursday 29 Sep

misasa: in search of radium

despite my cheap and cheerful minshuku having onsen, the real hot spring was down by the river, in almost full view of the bridge connecting the two halves of this town. the area is meant to have the lowest cancer rates in japan and as a result a lot of people come here for treatment of various ailments. there's also a seriously out-of-scale hospital here that would look at home in a city.

anyway, with darkness falling, things start getting very busy and visitors and locals alike turn up for a share of the free goodness. although the japanese are comfortable about being seen in the buff, it always helps to turn out the lights. it's a great leveller - nakedness. I met some students from shiga, a local programmer, an english teacher and a german engineer but when you're in the scud you could be anyone: your profession or lifestyle doesn't reckon.

although predominantly a male affair, we were joined by some women - washing on the stones around before plunging into a rather hot, natural tub. in fact you could have boiled an egg in the 'source' pool and it was being regularly doused with cold water. the heat and subsequent fatigue reminded me only of sauna.

wandering envigorated but shattered back to my bed, I passed all the visitors in their yukatas - clacking up and down the narrow street in their geta sandals on their way for a stroll as I realised I only got a brief glimpse of mount daisen, which had been my unofficial grail. but then just sitting in a hot tub under the stars and taking in the fresh mountain air was surely enough.


Posted by stupot at 12:18 AM Thursday 29 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 12:13 AM Thursday 29 Sep

misasa: hazelnuts and open razors

my first day in tottori was a little longer in the saddle than I had anticipated and so my second day was a much more civilised affair. I did get around to a 4 hour cycle but only after a leisurely breakfast, long lie and a haircut. I decided, before meeting a very interesting barber, that my room smelled of hazelnut. it had been on my mind for the 24 hours since I had arrived, but finally I managed to concentrate enough to filter out the buckwheat, tatami and incense and focus my nose on exactly that. like a song name you can't remember - it was really getting to me.

I was asked by the barbers wife (who shaved me) if I'd done any bird watching on my ride yesterday and I thought it an odd question until I remembered the amount of birds of prey I'd spotted (it's a funny feeling when you're in the middle of nowhere and you look up and something big is circling you). today, after my cut, I saw a few more as I rode up the valley thinking of glaciers going the other way.

It was a good ride toward daisen - the largest mountain this side of fuji - but with the weather closing and still a little fatigued from yesterday, i headed back for an easy descent to misasa. the pointer sisters 'neutron dance' seemed an odd soundtrack amidst such natural beauty, but at 75kph and with lots of corners, you don't really have much choice.


Posted by stupot at 11:42 PM Wednesday 28 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 11:39 PM Wednesday 28 Sep

misasa: over the hill and far away

it took 4 hours to get to misasa from osaka and despite a very laid back train journey, I immediately dumped the bag in search of a climb. I'd been thinking about this for a few weeks now. the road I took was great but my follow-your-nose technique ended up 140kms later........

the pass I chose was being partially resurfaced and despite doing a pretty good job of off-roading on slick tyres and getting over, my route back on the other side was also being repaired. the road was mostly perfectly smooth though and the views up near the clouds, stunning. my bike and I had endured enough vibration though and so we headed on down toward tottori city - the capital of the county. just before reaching the city I headed back west toward my destination, only to find a bunch of more hills in the way which added some valuable time with the sun getting lower and lower. certainly that sinking feeling. eventually deciding on the coast road for the final run in, my legs managed to keep up momentum and I managed to arrive back in daylight. the last 20 were pretty demanding mentally and physically but the ride was a good one and I knew what was waiting.

misasa onsen itself is a nice enough wee town with a quaint street and many fancy 'ryokan' inns and not so fancy 'minshuku' b&b's. being a cheapskate I opted for the latter and had an absolutely adequate stay in ichinoyu for six grand a night - they even throw in onsen and dinner for the price. I didn't need a beer to put me to sleep but I murdered one in any case.


Posted by stupot at 11:00 PM Wednesday 28 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 10:56 PM Thursday 22 Sep

love thy neighbour

it goes without saying that most things have been done here under the 'designing for small spaces category'. I've seen restaurants here that don't actually exist. sure, there's a kitchen recessed into a wall, but the restaurant itself is simply a narrow ledge before a half height curtain and often 'packed' with customers. it's really incredible to see, first-hand, how the japanese use space.

petrol stations are a classic example with ceiling-mounted pumps providing a much needed economy of space as well as a much safer environment. indoors, sliding doors go without saying and futons too. the 'keep', or under floor storage is perhaps a slightly less well known use of space but one which is essential for many homes, allowing storage for bulky goods such as rice and water - functional both by making use of dead space as well as cool space. then there's the wee bath. and the wee phones as well. the list just goes on and on.

essentials that extend from living in close proximity are both being tolerant of others and having manners. everyday nasty, near misses are common with bikes, cars and pedestrians in japan but people don't get particulalry upset or even acknowledge what some westerners would call their lawyer over. rage is, although increasing, still alien to japan.

furthermore, living metres away from someone elses living room window means in mid-summer when the windows are fully open, you've got to be careful what you say or do. even passing wind is an issue. certainly with my aptitude. shagging is forbidden in most japanese homes. I've one neighbour who sings quietly, but I hear him none-the-less, very cleary. I've another who's a football fan and when the country's doing well, the huge shouts that cry out seems to echo around the neighbourhood. but these are neither bothersome nor frequent events and people just deal with living so closely together by having a mutual respect. perhaps it goes someway to explaining why the japanese are such a calm and quiet race.


Posted by stupot at 06:40 PM Thursday 22 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 10:57 PM Tuesday 20 Sep

subtle as a brick

lighting is very much a discipline in its own right, as I've found out through both visualisation and design work. being famed for both its simplicity and subtlety you might think that japan would have this down to a fine art, and whilst paper lanterns can still be found in most homes, the main source of light is from fluorescent rings.

I don't know if it's because it's been accepted simply for its efficiency, but strip lighting is much more at home in car parks and hospitals - and it's a little difficult to unwind under the cold blue light. variations of directional, task and background lighting seem to have been all but forgotten in many homes. out and about, neon lines most streets, parks glare with floodlighting and pachinko parlours fire searchlights over most of the city.

I remember when we visited Aarhus about 5 years ago and walking along our friends suburban neighbourhood we spotted the combination of candles and classic lights creating a cosy glow in the harsh Danish winter. pendants by henningsen and castiglioni were in the majority of homes. there seemed to be a unquestioned respect for the quality of light by very average people.

perhaps it's japans relatively subdued weather that does not inspire the need for anything more than the fluorescent strip but if you ever look at a satellite image of the world at night you may be shocked at how much of an output such a small nation can produce.


Posted by stupot at 06:37 PM Tuesday 20 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 06:36 PM Monday 19 Sep

earthquake ready

I was in muji-rushi today to pick up some very boring bits of stationery when I came across this very interesting earthquake 'set': some essentials to get you through the worst of a natural disaster. presumably it'll work for a tsunami or typhoon as well. talking of which - things have been pretty quiet on that front since last years enslaught - fingers crossed. the colours and materials look like those used by fashionable tokyo brand - porter - but I think in this case it is just driven by function.


Posted by stupot at 06:34 PM Monday 19 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 06:32 PM Sunday 18 Sep

on this harvest moon

they say americans are always talking about the weather - or is that the english. certainly the japanese seem to be at it too and in all respects, it's understandable. lets face it - it's human nature and not just small talk.

It's just that these days, for many of us urbanites, the weather doesn't really have an affect on us. there just isn't much of the hunter/gatherer left in us and it seems that some of us only look up if we're inconvenienced. sometimes there are just too many buildings. with my grandparents having been farmers I was educated in, from an early age, the art of weather speak. I can still hold a transglobal conversation with my gran limited to only the basic elements. I watch the weather fairly religiously too - but thats probably just the cyclist in me coming out.

anyway, we've come to yet another delicate point in the transition of seasons and things are changing. the moon and sun are strangely magnified at the moment - the setting sun looking truly like the burning ball of fire it is and the moon living up to its reputation as a reading light. I've yet to see the rabbit there, but that may well be just down to lack of imagination.

we're right in the middle of tsukimi or moon-viewing season at the moment and it's not hard to see why. the smell of the burning rice which represents autumn in our kanji will soon fill our noses in a welcome combination with the cool air.

meanwhile - the mcdonalds hamburger chain has come up with a rather appealing advertising campaign as they have to become increasingly savvy with their marketing. perhaps based on japanese senga art, they've used a simplistic and powerful style. sadly thats where the appeal ends. one look at the fare on offer and the first ever generation of obese japanese children kind of puts you off your dinner. or is that meant to be a breakfast.


Posted by stupot at 06:31 PM Sunday 18 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 06:29 PM Saturday 17 Sep

the pros and cons of pressurised water

our nieces were in town this week from singapore and were able to see the end of a humid summer and beginning of autumn - all of which must be a pleasant change from the monotony of the weather near the equator: the red road.

my brother-in-law's wife's family live in a traditional wooden house that her father designed and built when he was 27. it's a really comfortable space made even more so by the presence of so many children and grand-children. we had a great barbecue and the meat was very good, I'm developing a special liking to lettuce leaf and slather of miso paste with strip of beef on top. fantastic. even the 'mino' or cows stomach, which at many izakayas is inedibly chewy, was delicious. I stumbled through most conversations with as many new words as I could remember but still knew I was closer to my 3 year old niece's level but it was good, much needed practice.

strangely, despite the moon being typically large, it started raining half way through the meal before we all realised that it was in fact the timed sprinkler trying to do it's evening job. the kids looked almost as perplexed as us but it was the introduction of mayonnaise and a water spray can which won most attention. all fun until you are on the receiving end!

while the kids were being bathed the guys sloped off for a sento public bath and sauna which I have to admit to being one of the really great things about Japan: the whole neighbourhood sharing a really hot bath. I also tried the denkiburo which seemed to be electrified water - slightly unnerving, that combination. finishing with the freezing plunge pool, as ever, was a must. simple pleasures.

back in the house we drank some more, heavily relaxed and glowing. with my in-laws-in-laws being exceptional hosts I was showered with gifts on departure and the continual topping up of beer throughout the night meant I had no idea how much I had drank until I donned my cycling shoes, tried to find my balance and snaked off into the dark night.


Posted by stupot at 06:26 PM Saturday 17 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 12:56 AM Friday 16 Sep

run, run, as fast as you can

so you get the tomatino festival in spain, and the bare-back horse race in italy but I'd never heard of the danjiri before I came to Japan. this is quite a festival. in the sense that someone usually dies each year. and in the sense you get danjiri insurance for your house.

it's kind of a religion in kishiwada, where the neighbourhoods who used to literally fight it out, now race their elaborate wooden carts in circuits around the town in this harvest festival of harvest festivals. hundreds pull each cart and at 3 or 4 metres high, the guy on top is the one with the most insurance. all seems to have cooled down a little over the years, but there's definite passion in the air - something that you can't usually find in day-to-day japan.

after months of preparation, kishiwada itself becomes an alcohol soaked blur for these few days in mid-september in south osaka and even the kids seem to be at it. drinking and running. drinking and running.

thousands descend from the large but normally subdued station onto the streets which are already lined by stall owners competing for trade and spectators shouting on each group who are covering the road in sweat. the pace of the day falls then rises, as shouts from the 'cox' are echoed and work up to a crescendo of noise and speed that sees hundreds of people pulling at full sprint. thats when, if you're on top, you don't want to see a corner. sometimes the course is altered by organisers during the event, making it look a bit like the wacky races. it's kind of like doing intervals on your bike and, during an all out sprint, you come to a hair-pin bend.

the guys on top of these things are just mental. they're meant to be carpenters and they perform all kinds of dances on top, and leap about on the roof in a crouch like a coil ready to explode. they, after all, are the ones who hypnotise the crowds, and leave you with a feeling of awe. they could after all, be about to meet the reaper.


Posted by stupot at 11:56 PM Thursday 15 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 01:26 AM Wednesday 14 Sep

chick murray

obvious things aside, there's little I really miss from Scotland. when you have a good reminder though - it jogs the memory something chronic. like going for dinner tonight.

my brother-in-law's back from singapore for a week and we were chatting at the driving range over some tea and a cigarette last night, as guys do. apart from reminding me that osaka is actually hotter than singapore because of the humidity (remembering singapore is on the equator) he was mentioning a french guy he knows there who speaks Japanese very well. anyway - he was mentioning that although he's skilled, he does speak like a woman. an unfortunate side effect of having the bread knife teach you, but an effect one must consider none-the-less.

so the father-in-law rocks up this evening to take me to curry with mates in tsuruhashi and I have this on my mind. it's funny - we get on very well in a low but increasingly communicative relationship. Junichi is your typical Osakan male - with full on dialect. to say he asks friends if they're making money would be an understatement. we're doing pretty well tonight, both of us becoming more adventurous with our language - me trying not to sound too feminine. and we get to tsuruhashi - where douglas junior made the movie. you know. black rain. tsuruhashi is raw - both culinary and culturally. it's the real, modern, urban osaka - visually grotesque but bursting with amazing food and very genuine people with some great anecdotes. there are less sword weilding bikers these days though.

after picking up a seemingly random man (Junichi tends to keep his cards close to his chest) the curry shop we ended up at was both authentic and tasty: nan, lassi, long grain rice, samosas, the lot. five others joined us including Yuka and it felt strangely like being back in scotland (indian curry is scotlands national dish). it was interesting to watch the locals slightly perplexed with the food and saying "karai" (spicy) alot and asking for chopsticks and not too sure about the foriegn beer and definitely not into the rice. it's a funny thing isn't it - the japanese are particularly proud of their rice. it is nice though. just not with indian curry.

so my father in law works at a major food-sauce company who supply to trade and the mystery guest we met on the street was one of the chefs. I found out tonight that there's nothing worse than sitting across from a chef who works in a major food sauce company - they eat far too clinically. but tonight I shall rest well with a belly full of pukka scran.


Posted by stupot at 01:25 AM Wednesday 14 Sep

hard gay

I don't watch much TV these days but if there's one thing that unites modern man, it's the universal appeal of crap saturday night TV. japan certainly has its fair share. tonights serving included a comedian dressed up in tight, studded leather vest with matching hot pants and cap and big 70's suglasses thrusting his pelvis at unsuspecting victims. Hard Gay is actually a pretty big sensation in japan just now and he gets alot of air time. to sound politically correct you could argue the gay in the name comes from 'geijin', which means 'comedian' in osaka (the funniest town this side of seoul). given that the name is in english though and that he wears the stereotype of homosexual club wear of yesteryear I suspect the whole phenomenon is very old skool humour. fittingly un-PC for even modern Japan.

interestingly though, homosexuality has been a part of japanese culture for a very long time and it's never really been viewed as wrong, like christians argue, or has there been laws against it. I read some time ago that same sex relationships were common in religious sects and with samurai and their apprentice. koyasan, a mountain top monastery town just south of osaka and steeped in history, was traditionally a sacred place for men only and affairs blossomed. the name was apparently even used when talking of same sex love. just looking around you can tell that there's a large percentage of modern japanese men who, to say the least, are in touch with their feminine side. lets face it - dyed, coiffured hair and handbags are common necessities even for the contemporary male city dweller.


Posted by stupot at 10:47 PM Saturday 10 Sep | Post comment (2) comments

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Posted by stupot at 01:47 AM Thursday 8 Sep | Post comment (1) comments

the banter

I caught up with an old teacher from art school yesterday in kyoto and saw an exhibtion of fine artists from glasgow who were in town exhibiting. we didn't 'get' any of the stuff and it was, to be diplomatic, inaccessible, but then that is not why you go to an opening: you go for the banter and to get mad with the free booze. the people were very nice though and especially so when we got away from the subject of art. art chat is too bloody serious. we're sitting in this gallery in south kyoto and although everyone is different nationalities - danes, japanese, scots - almost everyone is speaking with a glasgow accent. some of the japanese girls' being stronger than mine. shocking stuff, but very friendly.

anyway see my entry for the turner prize above - where the japanese mountains meets the country's fascination with folded paper.


Posted by stupot at 01:40 AM Thursday 8 Sep

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Posted by stupot at 12:51 AM Tuesday 6 Sep

ramune

drinking "ra-moo-nay" is one of many things I do to stay a child. usually I'll try to do a handful of things each day - and being in japan it's made a lot easier given there are so many different experiences. there are far too many glum faces on the street - too many adults, not enough children.

anyway - as soft drinks go - ramune is a crazy. firstly you have to open it and I'll admit to having phoned the trouble and strife for instructions on my debut - rekindling her memories of long hot summers. first you take off the wrapper and you're confronted with a green plastic thing and a blue plastic collar covering a glass bottle. now this is where I went wrong - the instructions suggested placing part of the green plastic thing on top and pushing down hard but I had visions of broken shards of glass in my arm. obviously this wouldn't be a great idea for a kids drink so I pushed and pushed and eventually it gave way and alot of pressure was released. when I started drinking I realised I'd released a glass marble into the bottle which gets caught in the pinched neck (you can see it in the final photo). WOW - a toy and a drink. fantastic.

the taste itself is a bit like cream soda.

a toy and a drink, eh? who would have thought. and for 88 yen. a bargain.


Posted by stupot at 12:50 AM Tuesday 6 Sep | Post comment (1) comments

dinner

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Posted by stupot at 08:39 PM Monday 5 Sep | Post comment (1) comments

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Posted by stupot at 02:29 AM Friday 2 Sep | Post comment (1) comments

insects are all around us

we certainly have our fair share of insects here. screen doors are a neccessity, but it's just that we didn't have so many large crawlers in scotland. from mosquitoes (incredibly I've still to be bitten) to dragonflies; cicadas to antler beetles (the current craze for young boys is collecting their top trumps cards); large spiders to grasshoppers; and of course, cockroaches. yeh - cockroaches.

I was confronted with one this week when I got up at night and it scared the hell out of me - especially as it ran up the wall when I tried to catch it. jesus - they climb walls. nasty, nasty stuff. I'm not phobic or anything - I just don't like sharing my house with anything so agile and that moves that fast. it's only the first we've seen in 6 months though, so hopefully shutting the toilet window will keep them out. as a precautionary measure we bought a mouse.


Posted by stupot at 02:28 AM Friday 2 Sep

just around the corner

things are still hot but definitely easing - I think we've broken the back of this summer thing. the cicadas are less of an all consuming wall of noise and more of background chirp. there's a comforting sea breeze tonight which is rolling in from the port and should help sleep. the last commuter train trundles past in the distance and apart from the occaisional squeak of bicycle brakes and solitary firework, the night is still. the harvest festivals will start soon and rising in the morning will come without a bed wet with sweat. autumn isn't too far away.


Posted by stupot at 02:10 AM Friday 2 Sep