Sunday, May 03, 2015

3 may -- at sea

Still on our way to Russia.

deconstructing the snack

I collect snacks.

"Collect" may not be the correct word.  It conjures up a Hummel-filled home somewhere in Topeka.  And that certainly is not the word picture I intend to paint.

Let's just say, I am a hunter and consumer of snacks.  Some people track and shoot elk.  I look for tasty between-meal morsels.  Especially, when I travel.

Mexico had almost broken me of my snack habit.  When I first moved down, I was enthralled with the chili-lime flavoring in almost all local snacks.  But that quickly wore off.  Having become bored with the flavor, I stopped eating them.

But travel always offers the hope of new flavors.  In England, I am a slave to pickled onion crisps (potato chips) and prawn crackers.  In China, it was cucumber-beef-tomato potato chips.  In Japan, it was a handful of tiny dried shrimp.

For me, the more exotic-tasting, the better.  If I had run across a packet of smoked sea cucumber flavored snacks, I would have nabbed it.

Of course, I may have seen one and simply missed it in Japan.  China labels most of its food with both Chinese and English characters.

Not the Japanese.  Their attitude sees to be if a potential customer cannot read the package, that is simply too bad.  And I understand it. 

English is the language of the United States.  Spanish is the language of Mexico.  Japanese is the language of Japan.  If you want to get by in any country, you need to know the language.

The photograph at the top of this essay is the lower portion of a snack bag I bought in Yokohama.  I mistook the cheery bespectacled figure at the right for a wasabi root.

My first taste told me I was mistaken.  It is clearly a sugar pea.  (Or, as the Chinese translate the words: "honey bean."  Which sounds vaguely like a term of endearment.)

The snacks inside were mainly flour and food coloring exuded in a form that looked vaguely like a pea pod -- and tasted of something vaguely vegetable.  There are snacks in The States that carry off the impression better, but are still not my cup of sake.

What I found far more interesting that Mr. Pea Pod or the package's contents were the cheery symbols on the left.

Some of them bore an obvious meaning.  The chicken and the pig, for example.  I am going to assume that chicken and pork played a role in the flavor, though I tasted nothing porkish.  Maybe it is a warning that eating the snack would leave the eater looking like either Porky or Petunia.

The top three were not so easy.  The middle symbol has to be wheat -- I assume warning the tiny portion of the public (up to 6%, I understand) who suffers from gluten issues.

Having found the Rosetta stone for flour, I deduced the symbol on the left was milk.  Even though it looks a bit like a urine sample.  Do people with a lactose intolerance suffer even if the food has been cooked to the consistency of styrofoam?

The symbol on the right stumped me for a bit.  Oranges?  Limes gone bad?  A wall-eyed happy face?

Then, it hit me.  Flour.  Milk.  What else do you need for a baked good?  Eggs.

And I have the same question.  Do people with egg allergies have a reaction if the eggs are cooked into the product?  Or are these warnings there for vegetarians who may stray into the world of egg-flesh-milk eaters?

It was a fun exercise.  But the world seems to be getting a bit complicated with all these warnings.  Alice's "eat me" cake seems to be naive when compared to these sign posts of impending death.

There are only two stops left to hunt down exotic snacks.  Cyrillic script in Russia will disguise my choices, but I am looking for something made out of bear.  And in Canada?  How about a seal-flavored cracker?

At least, I will be able to read the package.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

at ease at sea

Sea days remind me a lot of why I moved to Mexico.

My time is my own.  There are no schedules.  Everything I need for the good life is at hand.

When we left Tokyo last night, Roy and I discussed the seas we would be facing as we headed north to Russia through the Pacific past the Kuril Islands.  We both thought we would encounter choppy, if not stormy, seas.  After all, we would be sailing just south of the same waters that have made Deadliest Catch a hit.

We have both been on cruises where the weather has not been kind.  On one of our Transatlantic crossings, the bow slapping against the sea sounded exactly as if we were impaling whales on our bulbous bow.

So, imagine our surprise when we opened the sliding door to the deck this morning and found what you see at the top of this essay.  The skies were clear.  And the sea was almost lake calm.  We could feel no motion on the ship.

The calm was almost eerie.  If this had been a John Carpenter movie, we would have known that Something Really Bad was about to happen.

And right on cue, we entered a fog bank.

You know the type.  Where ghost pirates haunt the air and seek revenge for treachery long left unrevenged.

Well, nothing of the sort happened.  After a couple hours of zero frontal visibility, we were back in the sun -- and calm seas.

One thing I do not have in Barra de Navidad is a hot tub.  But the ship does.  Eight of them, I think.  I only needed one.

After a light lunch, I grabbed my Kindle, slipped into a hot tub for a couple of hours, and made a big dent in the latest editions of The Oregonian, The Economist, and National Review.  I am still amazed that technology can deliver them to me wherever I am -- even in a hot tub at sea.

I also knocked off another chapter of Robert Middlekauff's Washington's Revolution.  When I turned off the Kindle, George had just arrived at Yorktown with his somewhat troublesome French allies.  But, you know.  I think he
 just may defeat the British.  I don't want to spoil the plot for you.

All in all, it was a practically perfect day.  By the time you read this, I should be dining on venison in one of the ship's specialty restaurants.

But food is a topic for another day.  And I promise you are going to hear about it.

2 may -- at sea

Another commuting day.

We are closing in on the lair of the Russian bear.

Friday, May 01, 2015

prayers and flesh

First, let's get this out of the way.  I liked Tokyo.

It is big.  And energetic.  And filled with a long history -- most recently as Japan's capital.

But, I doubt I will put it on my list of cities to visit again.  Japan, yes.  Tokyo, probably not.  It is far too much like Los Angeles.  Spread out far too much.  And that history?  The evidence of it was wiped clean by the American fire bombing of the city in the Second World War.

Having said that, let me tell you why I had a top drawer day in Tokyo.

We docked in Yokohama harbor early this morning.  On the bus ride into Tokyo, something we missed yesterday was remedied.

Right you are.  Mount Fuji.  Admittedly, it is 120 miles further away than yesterday, and it was glimpsed only through the pollution that hangs around Japan's cities.  But it was there.  And we saw it.

What struck me most about Tokyo when we rolled into town was just how mundane it looks.  Other than the presence of water, this street could exist in Los Angeles or Vancouver or, I suspect, Des Moines.

The combination of Japan's desire to westernize and its start from an almost blank slate in 1945 has led to quite a bit of architecture that is less than inspired.  When Shanghai was launching itself into the edgy world of new architecture in the 1990s, Japan was wallowing in a recession -- that it has yet to effectively escape.
Ironically, our first stop was the Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine at Senso-ji.  Ironic because the complex contains the most significant and oldest temple in Japan.  Despite the fact that the oldest buildings in the complex (save one) were built following the Second World War.

The Buddhist temple is dedicated to what Westerners call the Goddess of Mercy -- a venerable figure in Buddhism.  Legend has it that two fishermen in 628 AD discovered a statue of the goddess in a river.  Even though the figure was thrown into the river several times, it always returned.  The villagers built the first temple for the statue in 645 AD, and began worshiping the Goddess of Mercy.

During the next thirteen hundred years, the complex grew, along with the neighboring Shinto Asakusa shrine.  That is, until 1945, when the entire complex (with the exception of one gate) went up in flame during the incendiary bombing of Tokyo by the Americans -- in anticipation of a land invasion of Japan.

Now, here is one of those odd stories that run through many cultures.  There is a tale that the Shinto shrine was saved from fire by a dragon that quenched the flames and saved the structure.

The dragon is portrayed on the front of the reconstructed shrine.  Of course, the original is gone.  Lost to modern flames.  I assume the dragon must have been napping on that night in 1945.

The temple is a working institution.  Inside, Buddhist monks repeatedly fan scriptures -- often making prayer requests for visitors to the temple.  The process looked unnervingly like Las Vegas dealers showing off with their card shuffles.

About fifeen years ago, I visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand.  That was my first introduction to this symbol in the context of Buddhism.

I have always found its presence jarring.  At the Senso-ji complex, it is ubiquitous.  On temple ornaments.  On the crest of the temple.  On the cap tiles of the roof.

And it does not help that it is called "svatstika" in Sanskrit.  But it is not a Nazi swastika.  The arms are bent in the wrong direction.

In Buddhism, the swastika is a sign of good fortune.  It also serves another purpose: as a symbol of Buddha's heart and footprints.  So, we can all calm down about its use.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we were not visiting the Japanese village at Disneyland.  It wasn't that everything was Scandinavian clean.  Or that the buildings had a new car scent.

The essence of the Disney connection could be felt in the unseasonably fresh cherry blossoms.

What looked like a miracle was merely a ruse for tourists.  Those blossoms are actually silk flowers attached by wire to pruned limbs masquerading as cherry trees.

The amazing thing is that the ruse worked.  Just as it would at Disneyland.  Another example of how the Japanese are expert assimilators of Western culture.

We were then off to Tsukiji market -- the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.  The place is divided into two parts.  The part we did not see contains the tuna and swordfish auction.  All of that takes place in the early morning each day.  We did not see it.

What we did see was the outer retail market.  Housewives and tourists mix amongst its retail stalls selling all forms of seafood and its derivatives.

If you are accustomed to markets in Europe, Tsukiji is far more funky.  And simultaneously breath-taking -- when it comes to prices.  Take these tomatoes.

And you could take a dozen of them.  For about the equivalent of $30 (US).  If you have a few more yen in pocket, you could also buy a few more cherry tomatoes similarly packaged for about $70 (US).

These bamboo shoots are not much less expensive.

Is it any wonder that the Japanese middle class is pressuring their current government to sign a free trade agreement that will lower trade tariffs that make many locally-grown products prohibitively expensive for them?

Speaking of food, the market is also known for its numerous food stalls and restaurants.  Roy and I decided to enjoy sushi in its home land.

Neither of us read or speak Japanese and the chefs at the sushi bar spoke no English.  So, we simply dived into the deep end of the fish pond, and requested a combination platter.  About 19 pieces, if I remember correctly.

I do not care for fish when it is cooked.  Not because I dislike the taste.  To me, it has no taste.  I could just as easily be eating tofu.

Therefore, I am not the best source to determine whether this particular platter of sushi was of good quality. 

To me, it was fine.  I know we ate tuna.  And sea urchin.  And sea urchin roe.  Plus the roe of some fish.  Other than that, I have no idea what some of the pieces might have been.

Would I try it again?  Certainly.  Maybe in a few years.  It simply tasted like nothing to me -- other than some of the seafood pieces.  They each had a -- what is the word? -- distinct taste and texture.

The sushi is a bit like Tokyo.  I am glad I experienced both.  But I suspect life has some better options to offer me.

Maybe we will find them in Russia.

1 may -- yokohama, japan

While the red world celebrates May Day, I will be celebrating my first tourist visit to Tokyo.  I believe we are on a tour today.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

green is my writer's valley

A couple of days ago, I foolishly asserted I could not generate stories from encounters with my fellow passengers.  What was I thinking?  Some unwitting creature always manage to wander past the bead of my elephant gun.

Take today.  We decided to get away from the big cities with a trip to Mt. Fuji and its surrounding Hakone national park.  I had no idea that Japan had wisely chosen to reserve its wild spaces.

Well, someone on our bus did.  In fact, he seemed to know everything about everything.  Remember The Pedantic Man in Midnight in Paris?  This guy would have put him to shame.

We learned that America dropped three atomic bombs on Japan.  That there are more Brazilians in Massachusetts than in Brazil.  That the United States made a huge mistake by not allying with Germany and Japan in the Second World War.  That Bowe Bergdahl should be executed along with the five released terrorists.

I was hoping he was from some English-speaking country other than The States.  I was wrong.  He is exactly the kind of guy who can give an entire nation a bad name during a single bus ride.

You might think I am being a bit churlish -- to now rip some poor guy with whom I had a conversation.  But I didn't say one word to him.  I was sitting across the bus in a row forward.  And I could not block out any of his unsolicited opinions or "factoids."  What I could not hear was our Japanese guide who was telling us what we were viewing.

I chose this particular bus excursion because I wanted to see Mount Fuji.  And this is as good as the view got.

You can barely make out its outline through the clouds.  But that was good enough for me to mark it off of the list I do not keep.

The mountain was simply too modest to show her shape.  That is, until the afternoon when the light was wrong.

That was a bit disappointing.  But the rest of the trip made up for it.

Our bus drove us up the Hakone crater -- a collapsed volcano -- to the Great Boiling Valley.  It is an aptly-named site.  The whole area is filled with sulphur vents and hot springs.  These places always look as if they could figure in a Bosch painting.

After an hour of breathing sulfuric air, we boarded a gondola for a cable trip from the summit to Lake Ashi in the crater's basin where we boarded a boat for a circuit around the lake.  That is it at the top of the essay.

Not just any boat.  It was a pirate ship.  Or, at least, a Japanese version.  Remember what I said about the Japanese ability to assimilate other cultures -- and to do it with style?  Well, imagine Captain Jack Sparrow, Versailles, and Hello Kitty all rolled into one kitschy package.

And do you know what?  It was the very essence of fun.  You might think that after a few days of cruising, the last place I would want to spend my free time was on the water.  You would be wrong.

It was a beautiful lake.  And, other than dodging our newly-acquired Pedantic Man, it was exactly what it advertised itself as being -- unadulterated fun.

Even though it took an hour and a half to get to the park, we drove through some enchanting landscape.  Such as, these fields of green tea.  And tangerine groves.

And the day was not over.  When we returned to the ship, a troupe of young Japanese drummers assembled to drum us out of town.

They were quite talented.  I shot a three-minute video that I wanted to post here.  But the internet speed is simply too slow to share it with you.  Instead, I offer up this photograph.  You can imagine the drumming.

Perhaps, I will be able to upload it when I return home to Mexico.

That is, after I figure out why the American government has spent 50 years covering up that pesky third atomic weapon we used against Japan.

Traveling is so broadening.