Thursday, March 29, 2012

Waiting for the blossoms

Yesterday evening I was running through the night in Komagome with the House House Harriers, on the search for chalk arrows and blooming sakura. The wind was no longer biting, and the smell of ume, sakura and the flowers hidden within private gardens made me want to dance.

Today I ran under the bright, warm sun of my lunch hour, blue sky above and sakura petals swirling around my ankles. How can one not feel happy about life when the weather is being so kind?

The sakura have yet to bloom fully, but the obsession with spring and flowers has already started. On a warm Saturday afternoon, a friend and I wandered over to Futagotamagawa, which has become a rather posh and polished area over the past couple years. Browsing through Takashimaya (pretending we can actually afford their prices) we came across a giant floral piece, complete with bunnies.

Matcha-kun, obviously also thinking florally, was the kind purveyor of the lovely bouquet above (along with sakura kasutera!), a belated White Day present. As he will soon be switching jobs, he seems very concerned about the fact that his income will decrease... and my opinion about the matter. "Thats cool" apparently was not the reaction he was expecting! I have a feeling a lot of guys wrap up their ideas of self-worth with their salary... that would definitely not work for me, hehe.

Finally, spring foods are starting to show up. I have not written much about food or restaurants recently because I have been either going to old favorites, or been disappointed (c'est la vie). However, thanks to the lovely Miss Carly, I found out about Kagetsu's spring-only vegetarian ramen and gyoza. Delicious and light (eating both only racks up about 600 calories), it did not leave that somewhat heavy feeling you can get after eating ramen. The spirulina-infused noodles were perfectly chewy, complimenting the tangy broth, and the gyoza superb... I may have to go back for another couple plates of them!

 I hope everyone is enjoying the arrival of warmer days, and looking forward to hanami :)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dating in Japan: Goukon Culture

Aaah, the goukon. Strange, strange institution.

One of my sharemates invited me to a party at Futagotamagawa. Now, I should probably have thought a bit more before accepting, considering she is the queen of goukon. However, since I was not asked to pay for anything, I assumed it would just be a good time, and maybe a good chance to meet some new friends.

And guess what? It WAS a goukon, cunningly disguised as a birthday party.... oy vey.

I do not have a problem with this sort of set-up per se. As a college student I attended several, and had a great time. A couple drinks, harmless flirting and a chance to meet new people, cool. However, the problem in this case is that the stakes are much higher... also, while many of the girls attending were in their early twenties, the guys were mostly in their fourties.

While it may be safe to assume that many of the ladies present were seeking a high-earning mate (which is fine, as the exchange of youth for wealth is common all over the world), this is not my case. I enjoyed my college goukon because we were all about the same age, with lots of different hobbies and interests, and were not taking the event as a serious 'meet-market'. While I am actually very good at speaking with high-powered salarymen, thanks to my job, it feels an awful lot like work. Also, the feeling of being analyzed and weighed up as a potential wife is particularly unsettling.

To make the best of the situation, I managed to find a few nice people to talk to, and the food was wonderful. There were several entrepreneurs, who are usually pretty interesting people. Then I was  cornered by a web designer, who looked like he could be about 28 (but was actually 42!). Nice enough, but faaar too persistant, at which point I made my escape.

Thus, a few ground rules (for those interested) for actually enjoying these events:

1- Make sure you know the age range of the participants. A gap of more than 10 years is to be avoided (unless that is your specific interest, of course).
2-Also, avoid 'specialized goukon', where the male participants are all doctors, lawyers, ToDai graduates or whatever. Variety is much better!
3- Go to a goukon organized by a friend, or at least attend with someone you know. Very helpful for breaking the ice.
4- Try to make sure you will not be stuck sitting in one place all night, having room to move and talk to different people will make the whole experience much more fun.
5- Give out your mail address, but not phone number (although most people I have met have been quite polite and not bombarded me with mails)

Questions? Stories (especially painfully hilarious or weird stories)?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

4 Days of Freedom: Aizu

A four day weekend is one of those perfect bits of time, long enough to take a day trip, and still have plenty of time to do all the things people usually end up doing on weekends (cleaning, cooking, laundry... koto practice) in a leisurely fashion.

Saturday was spent at the dentist (boo), followed by koto okeiko in Saitama (yay) and then at dinner with Matcha-kun (yay²).

Sunday was odd, starting with a sneak-goukon in Futagotamagawa (which I had no idea was one until stepping through the door... more about that in  later post), and followed by a lovely birthday carb-fest at home with my sharemates.

And Monday I rode the Tobu Nikko line for almost four hours, to go skiing in Aizu with a friend from college. Aizu is indeed in Fukushima prefecture, however is safe and well-monitored by both public and private organizations for radiation. A lot of Tohoku is really struggling right now, and as an ethical traveller I feel it is important (while keeping safety in mind) to try and help in some small way.

And, truly, it is absolutely beautiful.

My friend Hippy-chan spent the season working at the Takatsue Ski Resort, which has tons of good slopes for all levels, and some of the best fresh powder I have seen in years. This is obviously a place for serious snowboarders and skiers, and not a place people go to be seen. The view from the top slopes was breathtaking, mountain after mountain covered in bare trees and snow, with hawks riding the termals above it all.

After hours of racing down the mountain, I hitched a ride with Hippy-chan, as she was going back to Tochigi for the day. On the way we stopped for softcream, her choosing the famous grape-flavoured one, and me, being adventurous, trying the tomato-flavoured version. Surprisingly it was really tasty, just tomato-y enough, and balanced by the fresh milk taste!

Our second stop, before she dropped me off at the station, was Yumori Tanakaya, a ryokan in Nasushiobara. There is nothing better, after having skied for hours, than jumping into a hot onsen! The main draw are the two outdoor onsen, one of which is a national treasure. After climbing down to the river, there are several baths either overlooking or directly on the river, surrounded by statuary bleached rock and forest.

What a shock it was, when I returned to Tokyo after less than 24 hours, to find that in my absence spring had suddenly arrived!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

There is something in the air...

The night air is still cold, but now it holds a hint of something else, that smell of greenness to come, all the plants preparing for the sudden spurt of growth that is spring, and the overnight appearance of the fluffy pink sakura, currently being introduced by their more garish, hardy friends, the plum trees.

Spring coats (and in my case, a new awesome faux-leather motorcycle jacket from Uniqlo) make their appearance, as we all try to hurry spring along, and get to the warmer days spent under cherry trees, the long vacation of Golden Week... but it is still a bit too chilly, and everyone shivers and wishes they had kept on their now far too familiar winter coat.

But perhaps this feeling in the air is something else.. a kind of tension? The anniversary of March 11th passed, with much remembrance from people, but little movement of techtonic plates. However, for the past few days, there have been some tremors.

While riding on the usually rather subdued Toyoko line, suddenly everyone's cellphones starting to ring and buzz, as the train screeched to a halt... earthquake. I was woken up by a stronger tremor early on Friday morning. However, at least when at home, I can judge whether this is worth worrying about or not. You see, if a tremor reaches more than 5.5 magnitude, my koto's strings start to hum... if it is quiet, then things are ok.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Weekday Away: Fukuoka

It has always been a dream of mine to step on a plane with nothing but my ticket in hand.

Well, I have come close, as I flew off to Fukuoka for a turn-around business trip, with just my purse. And speaking of purses, apparently now there are Samantha Thavasa planes...hopefully not as frilly as the actual bags themselves. Haneda Airport also purveys incredible matcha/white chocolate muffins, which are very sweet, but just the thing after getting up at 5am!

I have a soft spot for Fukuoka, a wonderfully flat and bikeable city of water and bridges. The cool salty wind is such a pleasure, even if it does ruin my hairdo, and it is nice to have a change of scene, a quick break from Tokyo. Due to the location of the event, I was not able to have Hakata ramen for lunch, and instead settled on a plate of sara udon, a specialty of Nagasaki. Spending less than 10 hours in the city is really quite a shame, however professional obbligations must be fulfilled...

From the plane home, the view of Tokyo and Yokohama at night was breathtaking. Gone are the never ending rows of boring gray houses, replaced by millions of pinpricks of warm yellow light, like a flood of stars (or Dust, for those who get the reference). It was enough to distract me from the really tasty inari-zushi (stuffed with wasabi root from Oita), and the delightful omiyage sweets my boss and I scoffed as a reward for a job well-done.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tall times in Tokyo

Shopping in Japan, for those of us who are taller than 1.65m, can be a real challenge. While the width of clothes (at least in my case) is usually just fine, almost everything is really short! I don't mind sleeves so much, as mine are always pushed up anyway, but skirts and dresses can often border on the indecent. If you want to see that much of me, you'd better buy me dinner and champagne first!

I shall not even start on the difficulty of finding a pair of pants that fit my hips (which, with good tech support, could probably take over the world). Most of the big (read: expensive) department stores have tall sizes, but the idea of dropping 30000円 on one skirt is ridiculous. I have yet to check out the Japanese outlets of Banana Republic and Gap, perhaps they have bottoms that will fit?

However, here and there one can find brands that work. My recent discovery is the cheap chain Honey's, which had skirts that actually hit my knees... of course, they are almost calf length on the sales staff, but the fit wasn't compromised. I was so excited I changed into it as soon as I left the store. Another choice is Nissen, the online retailer, from whom I got a fluffy sweater, and has sizes up to 3L (which mostly means the clothes get wider, not longer, so the sleeves are still a bit short). You can witness the glory of the skirt below, along with the ribbon-laced Nissen sweater.

For layering and basics, Uniqlo is your friend, as demonstrated by the black Heat-tech shirt and tights in the pic above... and the difference between Pic 1 and 2 also reminds me that the sack-like fit of a lot of womens clothing here really does nothing for those of us with an hourglass shape, no matter how cute they look on the rack!

Shoes can be easier, as sometimes I fit into the average L. In the past MareMare has had boots that fit... although a lot of their styles are a bit too earth-mothery for my tastes. I miss Candish (a Uniqlo shoot-off that offered colorful, basic shoes), and hope they start a similar enterprise again! If you are willing to drop a bit more cash on shoes, there are stores in both Ginza and Hiroo that stock footwear up to 27 cm!

As per usual, the search continues... does anyone have any suggestions on the matter?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Lazy Weekend

Oh the glory that is waking at ones leisure on a Saturday, with nothing much to do except walking over to the market and doing some laundry on the agenda. No koto lessons, work events or anything else... it has become such a rarity!

Friday night I met with a friend from grad school, Yogi-chan, at my favorite Kyoto-style restaurant in Nakameguro, Kokoraya. I have gone there several times, and each time the food and mood are so good I completely forget to take pictures... but not this time!

I always order the kabu oden with white miso, and we tried the really interesting yamaimo and tofu gratin, which was spiced with sanshou. But, of course, dessert and drinks were the piece de resistance: Sake infused 'rare cheese mousse' and ginger infused chuhai.

Yogi-chan also kindly brought me wonderful onsen salts, which I cannot wait to try out. What a nice relaxing day... you can feel spring in the air, and the plum trees are starting to bloom!