Some years back, my wife and I discovered the simple pleasures of the espresso tonic: a shot of espresso mixed with tonic water. If you’ve never had one, it sounds pretty bad! Hot espresso, mixed with the sweet and bitter flavor of cold, fizzy tonic water? Somehow, though, it miraculously comes together into more than the sum of its parts, into a drink that is simultaneously richly flavorful and incredibly refreshing.
Unfortunately, as trends do, espresso tonic faded away as quickly as it came, leaving us sadly deprived of the drink — particularly because we didn’t have an espresso maker at home (at least, not at the time). For a while, it became a thing we occasionally remembered and reminisced about, but mostly in the context of a lost, treasured past.
Several months ago, though, a new café opened near a bakery that I frequent on the weekends, and the lively, chatty owner has made it worth the trip out just for the conversation. During one of these visits, to enjoy an hour of chatting for the price of an espresso, it came up that my wife could really go for an espresso tonic now that the weather was warming up, but they’re so hard to find.
The next time I visited, I arrived just after the owner of the coffee shop had received a mail-order shipment: seemingly dozens of bottles of tonic water, in multiple flavors. He was so inspired by the previous weekend’s casual desire for an espresso tonic that he decided to not only start selling them, but to challenge himself to find just the right blend of coffee beans to perfectly complement each flavor of tonic water.
One challenge he did not foresee: the difficulty of opening the bottles without chipping the glass in his enthusiasm.
Happily, he did carefully filter the tonic water through a paper filter, and the resulting beverage was perfectly safe to drink.
Though I have yet to take a photo of any of his espresso tonics, please rest assured that they are all delicious. If you haven’t tried this drink yourself, give it a chance if you ever have the opportunity! You may well be pleasantly surprised.
It’s been a while since the last time I’ve posted here; the busy season is starting to ease up, and there’s finally time to share a little bit of my personal life on here.
Last September, my wife and I took advantage of the long weekend to explore the Noto Peninsula in northern Ishikawa — for whatever reason, we’d somehow never gotten around to visiting most of Noto, and there’s a lot up there to enjoy.
The Chirihama Beach Driveway is a popular destination, and for good reason: it’s a lot of fun to drive your car on a beach! (Incidentally, having a car made safely traveling during the pandemic a lot easier, especially because we made a point of doing things like eating meals at weird hours to avoid crowds whenever possible.)
Being able to drive directly on the beach seems like it shouldn’t be that exciting, but somehow it’s a really unique experience. The sand is, unsurprisingly, exceptionally hard, to the point where if you stomp on it, the most it might do is crack.
We stopped at a roadside rest area near the Chirihama Beach Driveway, to take advantage of their free car shower (to wash off the sand), and found a collection of fun sand sculptures!
In addition to this large main one by the entrance, there were a number of others around, presumably all sculpted by taking advantage of the incredibly fine, hard sand.
We continued our trip up along the coast with a late lunch at a charming little restaurant with an exceptional view and (importantly!) outdoor seating. What I didn’t expect was how they presented their menu:
Udon noodles with nori seaweed: ¥650.
Incidentally, their “business cards” were also small stones with their name and address hand-painted on. Very charming!
We finished our drive along the coast with a stop at an old-fashioned Agehama-style salt farm. In addition to the “real” hands-on experience, they also have a bucket of water where anyone can try out the technique they use to sprinkle the seawater onto the sand (so they can concentrate the saltiness before washing it off and cooking it out into salt). It’s much harder than it looks — you need to twist your wrist as you throw out the water! (Special thanks to my lovely wife, for serving as the model in this video)
If you’re ever in Noto, I definitely recommend stopping by and trying this out in particular! I could have spent all afternoon trying to perfect my saltwater-throwing technique. And of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in Noto, but that’ll have to wait for another day.
Some months ago, back when the coronavirus quarantine was really starting to get going, my wife and I found ourselves looking into new hobbies that we could do at home. She rediscovered Duolingo, and, a few days later, so did I. “Why not try studying the basics of a brand new language?” I thought, and motivated solely by the fact that I think it has one of the nicest-looking writing systems of any major language, I decided to pick up Arabic.
I also have a hobby of calligraphy, and make a habit of filling one (relatively small) page a day with some sort of writing practice. My first day of trying to write Arabic, shown above, was… not great. I will not be winning any calligraphy competitions with my first try, especially given embarrassing mistakes like the upside-down ُ in there.
Over time, I got a little better, though. A few days later, I could at least remember to write things the right way up.
Arabic is a pretty interesting language, too, just from a linguistic standpoint (though, before I go any further, please let me remind you that I am still very new to the language, and by no means an expert!). Unlike English and Japanese, Arabic adjectives go after the nouns they modify (so instead of “big house,” you would say “بَيت كَبير”/bait kabir, or “house big”). Another interesting feature is that there’s apparently no Arabic word for “to be” — instead, you simply say, grammatically, “Omar teacher.” or “Rania chef.”
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of Arabic, to me, is how heavily gendered the language is, on a fundamental grammatical level. Linguists have noted that Japanese has very marked differences between how men and women speak, but that’s more sociocultural than grammatical.
In Arabic, though, in addition to all nouns being either masculine or feminine (a trait it shares with many European languages), other aspects of the language have gender “baked in” on a fundamental level. For instance, much like how English has masculine and feminine third-person pronouns (“him” and “her”), Arabic actually extends this to second-person pronouns, with masculine and feminine forms of “you.”
(As an aside, I found myself wondering how Arabic must handle things like prompts on computer screens to say things like “enter your password.” After a few moments, though, I realized that this probably isn’t a problem in practice, because Arabic writing omits short vowels — though the words for “you” or the suffixes used to indicate “your” have different vowel sounds to indicate masculine/feminine, usually these vowel sounds wouldn’t be written at all for native adult speakers, so something like ما اسمك, or “what is your name,” would simply be read with the appropriate vowels added for the reader.)
One separate matter that I’ve found myself thinking about is that, when learning a new writing system, there’s a weird relationship between “writing neatly” and “writing like a native speaker.” A nonnative adult who is a complete beginner will initially write in a way that looks sloppy and wrong, in a nonnative way, but with practice nonnative speakers can make their handwriting look much nicer and more legible.
However, this often winds up looking “nonnative” in its own way, as it will often be too neat, or perhaps a little too closely based on how printed text looks. So the final step, for learners of new languages, is to study the way that native speakers write quickly and a little sloppily, but in a way that everyone is familiar with, and can read, as a result.
Needless to say, I am nowhere near that point yet with Arabic, but I’ve at least found study materials specifically on how native speakers write for everyday purposes and for calligraphy. I doubt I’ll ever even make it to the point where I can have much of a conversation in Arabic, but it’s been an interesting hobby nonetheless, and I always enjoy the experience of having an unfamiliar writing system gradually change from “cool-looking squiggles” to “text” in my brain.
It should come as no surprise that, much like the rest of the world, I have been:
Not been going outside unless necessary
Playing a great deal of Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing has proven to be quite a delight for a number of reasons (including the extremely good localization job done by Nintendo), but perhaps chief among them has been the way that it neatly fits a hobby I’ve had for a while now, for whatever reason. For years, now, I’ve been fond of photographing bugs and other small creatures when I encounter them when I’m out.
Now that there’s more pressure not to go out unless necessary, there’s been less time for that hobby, but on the other hand, it’s been nice to have Animal Crossing available — and it’s been very interesting to note just how Japanese the various bugs are that are depicted in-game.
For instance, these jewel beetles can be found from time to time in Japan. They are indeed aptly named: they sparkle and glitter like gems in the sun. One imagines that this makes them highly visible to predators, though.
The spiders that show up in Animal Crossing (not the tarantulas) are also very similar to the kind of large, black and yellow spiders you’ll find throughout Japan, especially toward the end of summer or early autumn.
It’s interesting to note just how large some of the bugs you’ll find in Japan can be, too. This moth was large enough that we couldn’t help but wonder how it could fly. That being said, though, it did seem to be having some difficulty with that at the time.
Dragonflies are a symbol of mid to late summer in Japan, presumably because they are just EVERYWHERE. They also seem uniquely unafraid of humans, such as photographers, making them a great subject for getting up close to take a picture.
Speaking of big cool bugs that don’t really pose much of a threat to humans, I’ve always been fond of mantises. While they can be found overseas — I remember seeing them from time to time when growing up in the US — they seem to be much more common in Japan. One thing that’s especially endearing about them, to me, is that they don’t have a larval form. As a result, a young mantis just looks like a super tiny version of an adult mantis. For an idea of scale, that first photo is of a mantis nymph on the end of a ball-point pen.
And of course, there are other small creatures that are still fairly photogenic. Whenever it rains, it feels like suddenly a hundred snails appear near my home. I suppose that makes sense — they prefer wet environments, after all.
I also have an inexplicable fondness for small crabs. The river near my apartment seems to be home to a fair number of these little crabs — for an idea of the size, the crab is standing on a manhole cover, and its body is roughly the size of a circle made by touching the tip of your finger to the tip of your thumb. I’m not sure why it is that I find tiny crabs so adorable. Perhaps it’s the way they walk so slowly and smoothly compared to, say, cockroaches (which are decidedly not cute bugs).
In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of small animals from outside, as a way to help pass the time while you’re quarantined. Please stay safe, everybody!
Certainly, Kanazawa is a beautiful city all year round, but there’s something about winter that feels truly iconic. Maybe it’s just the decorations that go up in December or so. (Please ignore the fact that it’s currently February — it’s been busy!)
At the train station, they put up a Christmas tree in the lobby with Kanazawa-themed decorations, depicting Tsuzumimon Gate (located out front of the station), Kotoji Toro (the iconic two-legged stone lantern from Kenrokuen Garden), yukizuri rope supports used to help trees handle the heavy snowfalls the region generally gets in winter, and — because it is a train station, after all — a Shinkansen train.
This display in Korinbo combines the Christmas tree motif with a slightly abstract depiction of a yukizuri support, for a uniquely Kanazawa approach.
More distinctly Japanese, though, are the decorations you’ll see at entrances of both homes and businesses to greet the new year. Here’s a set from a shopping mall:
These decorations are called kadomatsu, and in fact, they’re a ubiquitous enough symbol of the new year in Japan that they’re among the original set of emoji (🎍). These sorts of decorations can be found pretty much everywhere at the end of December and the beginning of January.
A closer look at one placed out in front of a hotel. Delightfully, these decorations can be found even in what might seem like fairly unorthodox locations:
In this case, construction workers decided to spruce up the entrance to their construction site.
Naturally, for the new year, the popular custom is to visit a temple or shrine, so I made my way to Oyama Shrine, which was beautifully lit up for the evening.
I’ve always been a fan of its iconic gate. Its blend of architectural styles — you don’t often see stained glass at Japanese religious buildings! — almost feels nowadays like a symbol of the internationalization of Kanazawa, or perhaps even Japan as a whole. If nothing else, it sure is pretty.
We walked around a bit more in the area, and came across this unique-looking structure:
It took us a moment to figure out that this was a shrine building with an exterior built on to help it weather the winter. As you approach the front of the building, though, it becomes obvious. Even so, it was kind of an odd experience to look inside a building only to see what is, effectively, the outside of a building.
We also saw this phone booth. Nothing especially wintery about it, or anything. It was just kind of fun seeing traditional local architectural styles applied to a phone booth.
If you visit Japan, it’s a common piece of advice to try to avoid the new year, because the whole country kind of closes for the first three or four days of January, but if you’re interested in a perhaps quieter, more contemplative experience (especially if you’re visiting someone), the new year in Japan can be beautiful in its own way.
For the recent long weekend, my wife and I visited Kyushu, because we’d never really spent much time there before. In this case, we mostly stuck to the northern part, around Fukuoka.
One thing I’d heard about Fukuoka City is that yatai food stalls were a major part of the local culture. I’d always imagined that, say, there might be three or four out by major train stations, or something like that.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Along this river, at least on weekend evenings, there were dozens of these yatai. Probably as many as thirty or forty, with plenty of others scattered throughout the city: there were many more near the major train stations, and even just in various open spaces. We even saw one that was simply out on the sidewalk in front of a convenience store.
This river is also kind of a famous part of Fukuoka City, apparently, and has the sort of large neon signs that Japanese cities’ nightlife districts tend to be known for.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the sorts of older, “animated” neon signs you’ll see in Japan that generally date back several decades. The pre-LED kind.
Our trip also took us to Dazaifu, home of Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a major shrine.
The train station architecture alone provided a solid sense of what to expect in terms of why this town is on the proverbial map.
Apparently, it’s common to come to the shrine to pray for success on, say, tests and other examinations, so there’s a ramen shop next to the station selling gokaku ramen, served in a pentagonal bowl. In Japan, wordplay is often a major part of things that are considered lucky or auspicious, and in this case, it’s based on the similarity between the words gokaku (pentagon) and gōkaku (successfully passing a test).
The walk to the shrine was nice, with a number of charming old storefronts, and a definite theme of ume plums in their names and products. This makes sense: the shrine is a Tenman-gu shrine, dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin, and ume plums are generally associated with him. (Come to think of it, Fukuoka’s nightlife district is also named Tenjin. I wonder if there’s any connection.)
Along the way, though, we also encountered one shop that didn’t quite feel like it fully belonged there, though it was very impressive nevertheless.
I have no idea why there was such a fancy Starbucks here, but… there was! The wood design continued inside, all the way through to the back of the shop. (Pardon the animated image; it was very difficult to capture the 3D feel of the design otherwise.)
Not much later, we made our way to the shrine! It was nice.
We also made our way out to Karatsu, Saga for another event while we were in Kyushu: the Karatsu Kunchi festival. Float-based festivals are always fun, and this one was very impressive.
Each part of town has its own elaborate float, made mainly of lacquered wood, and people pull the floats around town with drummers and flute players aboard, sometimes even breaking into a sprint. At some points along the route, the groups come up very close to the edge of the street, where people were gathered to watch, and turn at the last moment.
A few of them, like this goldfish one, even have articulated parts! In this case, the fins move back and forth, and the whole top part is up on a pivot to tilt it forward and back.
The floats tended to draw from mythology and history, with a few giant replicas of famous samurai warriors’ masks and helmets, as well as other designs like this treasure ship…
…and this shachihoko, a sort of mythical fish that you’ll often see on Japanese castle rooftops, as a way to ward off disaster.
On the way home, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while we were at Fukuoka Station before getting on the Shinkansen to go home.
We got castella cake from Fukusaya, a famous old shop that dates back hundreds of years. They’re based in Nagasaki, but they have a shop in Fukuoka, as well. Kyushu has a long history of sweets in particular, because for a long time, all of the sugar Japan imported came in through Nagasaki’s Dejima port, and as a result it’s common to add sugar to all sorts of cooking in Kyushu, even today. On the other hand, if I am going to be honest with myself, I took this photo mostly because Fukusaya’s logo made me think of Batman.
And with that, it was time to head home. Just one thing left to do before leaving:
Time to pick up some Kyushu souvenirs. Kyushuvenirs.
One experience that has stuck with me was an evening when my wife and I were getting dinner with a couple of coworkers of hers who are from Israel. The conversation turned to halva, a dessert popular in many countries, including Israel, and my wife — a fond lover of puns — mentioned that they should have a brand of halva called “Halva Nagila,” after the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” They both briefly stopped and kind of stared into the middle distance before going “…OH, okay, now I get it.” Apparently, in Hebrew, the two words do not sound similar in the same way that they do in English.
At the same time, though, I’ve had plenty of experiences with this phenomenon in Japan, with English. Even back in 2005, during a study abroad program…
…the school festival that fall had the theme of “All You Need is Laugh,” which sounds obviously strange in English simply because the parts of speech don’t really work, but it’s less obviously so in Japanese, partially because the subtle distinction of why “laugh” sounds weird there isn’t intuitive (“laugh” can be a noun, but “laughter” would be more natural here), and also because the vowel sounds of “love” and “laugh” both reduce to the same equivalent sound in Japanese.
Here’s a product with a name I’m really fond of!
The Japanese word for mackerel is saba, and in Japanese, “v” sounds are generally reduced to “b” sounds because “v” isn’t a sound native to the language. The result: canned mackerel with the name “ça va?” (“how’s it going?” in Spanish).
Here’s a unique foodstuff with a unique name:
Unsurprisingly, “New Yolk” is meant as a play on “New York,” and I can’t really fault them for going with a name like that. Incidentally, I can’t let this go by without noting that the sign in the bottom right advertises “the world’s hardest-to-eat hot dog,” and the sign in the top right suggests that they may have a strong claim to the title.
This one takes advantage of different naming conventions in Japan:
In Japan, it’s very common for a business to put what kind of business it is at the beginning of the name, rather than optionally at the end, like in English (i.e. something like “Ramen Ichiro” is far more common in Japan, instead of something like “Ichiro’s Ramen” that would be more natural in English). In this case, it’s a bar with what appears to be a finance motif — a web search suggests that they have big-screen TVs inside over the bar showing some sort of data visualizations — and even though the logo is clearly a line chart, I couldn’t help but absolutely love the way the name works.
Sometimes, though, the wordplay can work just as well in both languages!
This restaurant is named for the fact that it’s run by the Iwai family, and because the restaurant specializes in hamburgers, steak, and other “American” foods, they wanted an “American-sounding” name, so they went with “E.Y.’s,” not because the letters stand for anything in particular, but because it sounds like “Iwai.”
Finally, we have one more that I’m honestly not sure about!
I love this name, but I don’t actually know if it’s meant to be a play on The Da Vinci Code or not! Is it a clever pun in English, or is it a play on the tendency of many Japanese speakers to de-voice voiced consonants at the end of some loanwords (i.e. “bed” becomes “bet,” or “bag” becomes “bak”)? Or maybe the owner just likes Leonardo da Vinci? It remains a mystery. The coats in the window looked quite nice, though.
After many years living in Japan, I finally did something I’d been meaning to do for a very long time: see a baseball game at the legendary Koshien stadium. The Hanshin Tigers were playing the Chunichi Dragons, and while I once lived near Nagoya, I could not deny the incredible passion of the Hanshin Tigers’ fans.
It wasn’t until after we arrived at Koshien Station that it finally occurred to me that the Hanshin line, the railroad we took in, almost certainly owns the Hanshin Tigers, which would certainly explain the extra trains on the schedule for game days, as well as the unique exit-only ticket gates at Koshien station.
We’d arrived! Granted, the view from the train station wasn’t great, possibly because of the highway that was seemingly built after the stadium.
Our friend took a picture of my wife and me outside the stadium, from a much better vantage point. The lighting on us wasn’t great, but, well, there was a highway casting a shadow.
For some reason, as we entered the stadium, we noticed that they were handing out Tigers hats. On the upside: free hat! On the downside: 1990-style faded denim? My wife didn’t wear a hat that day, and it was very hot and sunny, so she took advantage of the free hat, even if it’s not usually her personal style.
The game itself was fun, if largely uneventful. One thing we noticed that was rather different from baseball games in the US is that after every time a ball went into the stands, they would make an announcement (“Foul balls are very dangerous!”) and even sent cheerleaders out with a banner to the same effect. Oh, also, there were cheerleaders, which aren’t really a thing at American baseball games — they’re more associated with football and basketball.
It’s hard to capture in a photo, but another thing about the atmosphere that’s quite different at Japanese baseball games is the music. In the US, baseball is generally associated with organ music (for reasons far too complex to go into here — there’s a great episode of the podcast Every Little Thing that delves into the topic in detail, if you’re interested!), but in Japan, the norm is constant music played from the stands by fans, generally on trumpets and other horns. Apparently, this used to be the norm in the US, too, but nobody really does it anymore.1
Another thing that happened that I was not used to was the fact that relief pitchers were brought onto the field in a Smart ForTwo.
However, it is my understanding that this is not a standard part of baseball in Japan.
One last ritual that we really enjoyed came during the seventh inning: the stadium sold special balloons with noise-making nozzles on them, and fans would buy them and blow them up in preparation for the middle or end of the seventh inning.
The fans sing the team’s fight song, then release their balloons all together for a really unique experience. Unsurprisingly, it was a much more impressive show of fandom for the Tigers than for the Dragons, but it was still a lot of fun.
Overall, it was a great experience! We might have to find another chance to see another baseball game at Koshien, one day.
Because of this, it’s easy to tell if old baseball video games, especially on the NES/Famicom, were made in Japan or the US, based on whether they had background music. ↩
Careful readers may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since my last post, and I do apologize for the long gap — the busy season has finally calmed down a bit, providing me with a moment to once again say hello to the world. I am, in fact, still alive.
Appropriately enough, this week has also been the start of spring proper, at least based on how it’s been outside. The weekend reached sunny highs somewhere around 25°C/77°F, and it wouldn’t be spring in Japan without the cherry blossoms, which are likewise in full bloom right now, as every single person living in Japan (including the foreigners, or perhaps especially the foreigners) steps outside to spend hours taking photos of the cherry blossoms, which will no doubt bring constant joy to them throughout the rest of the year.
This year, my wonderful wife has been particularly adamant about how we should do some “proper hanami” (cherry-blossom-viewing), though she also jokes about just carrying around a little 180 ml jar of sake or a beer, finding a cherry blossom tree in bloom somewhere, and just shouting “HANAMI” and having a drink while standing underneath it. The main problem with this plan is obvious: it is also vitally important to have a snack with you.
In any case, we made a point of enjoying the blossoms this weekend along with the lovely weather, and didn’t worry too terribly much about finding an ambitious destination — as anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time can tell you, cherry blossom trees clearly grow naturally along every riverbank in Japan. ; )
Ultimately, we decided to do some local blossom-enjoying with a bit more formality, bringing some little ochoko cups along with us. I do want to draw attention to the label on this sake, though: in addition to being fairly tasty stuff (nicely sweet and tart), it has what might be my favorite bit of logo graphic design I’ve ever seen. Both my wife and I initially saw the “さくら” on the label as just elaborately written text, and it took a moment to realize that they formed a face and the brim of a hat. I’ve long been a big fan of clever graphic design (I absolutely love the little feet on the Takkyubin wordmark, for instance), so when we saw that at the store, well, we knew we had to pick up a bottle, just to reward the brewery for their work.
Recently, I went to the Biwako Biennale (English page) in Omihachiman, Shiga. If you’re in the area, you can go too! It’s running until November 11, 2018.
First of all, Omihachiman is a charming little town, worth the trip by itself. There’s a reason you’ll find essentially this same picture, taken by a hundred other people — it’s a beautiful view that isn’t hard to enjoy.
Our main destination that day, though, was the Biwako Biennale, an art installation festival going on throughout Omihachiman. For ¥2,200, we got admission to a variety of very cool art installations.
These were generally built into old houses or other old buildings — these art installation biennales and triennales are becoming fairly popular throughout Japan, especially in smaller towns where dropping populations are leading to vacant buildings.
Some of the exhibits are full-scale installations that simply must be visited to be properly enjoyed (such as the hanging lights near the top, or this one above), but some of them were collections of smaller items. For instance, this next photo is one of several similar items; though it looks like a jar or vase or something wrapped in a cloth, the whole thing — “cloth” and all — is made of clay.
And then there was this large, impressive work. Perhaps the most impressive aspect was the fact that every part of it was made out of food. The bags below, in fact, contain examples of some of the seeds and other items used in the sculpture above.
If you have the chance, I absolutely recommend visiting for yourself! It’s still running for another week or so, and these photos only scratch the surface. A lot of the exhibits can only be properly experienced in person, so I didn’t even try to photograph them! And some of them, well… some of them are at least sort of expressed in video, but they’re still a lot more fun in person too.