Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tokyo (Saturday - Post-Wedding)

So you're probably wondering where the post about the wedding is. I'm skipping it for now (check back and/or remind me about it later) because there are a couple nice (and clear) pictures of people who aren't me taken at the wedding (which is not a public place) and I'd like to have explicit permission from those people before posting those photos on the web. As the happy couple is currently on their honeymoon and I'm leaving town in not too many days, I thought it might be best if I wrote up the rest of the trip first.

After stopping off at the hotel to change, we meandered toward Roppongi Hills (a giant shopping/restaurant/mixed-use building complex), to the Mori Art Museum, to which Kumiko had kindly provided us with some complimentary tickets. On the way, we happened to pass Tokyo Midtown, an even newer (the grand opening was the previous day), giant mixed-use building complex with the tallest building in Tokyo (this photo is the view from the bridge to the entrance of the main shopping building, I think).

Inside the actual building, it was pretty packed. Anyway, it was just a short walk to Roppongi Hills, where I took this picture of the Mori Tower

and this picture.

On the 52nd floor of the building there is an observation deck. We just happened to arrive at dusk, so I tried to get some nice twilight/night pictures. Here you can see Tokyo Tower to the left and Rainbow Bridge fading into the mist on the right.

It was a little hard to get a good picture because there were lights behind me. In this shot, I think you can see the projected images of cherry blossoms on the wall behind me, where there was a nice seating area and live music. That bright spot near the middle is Shibuya, where they have an incredibly busy intersection -- the intersection that gets filmed to show how busy and full of people Tokyo is. Shibuya is also the location of a statue of a dog near one of the exits to the Shibuya subway station, which is a very popular meeting point for people. To the far right is Omotesando, an upscale shopping area.

On the right you can see Tokyo Tower again and Ginza (the shopping area, there's a lot of shopping in Tokyo) on the left.

The art museum (on the 53rd floor) was pretty interesting, with two different exhibits exploring the theme of laughter. By the time we got through them, we were all pretty beat and headed back, stopping off at a curry place for dinner. Back in Akasaka, they'd been blocking off streets all day for a marathon and a few other events (making getting to and from the wedding that morning a little tricky). The last event of the day was a draft horse race down the winding streets and up this steep hill (ending across the street from our hotel). We didn't wait around to see the races, but I caught one round on the TV.

Two horses line up and behind each is a sled (not a cart, a sled). On the sled stands a driver and in front of the driver sits a passenger. I assume the passengers are local celebrities since they didn't seem to do anything but yell encouragement. The race seemed ill-advised and rather dangerous, as sparks flew from the bottoms of the sleds (I wouldn't think that was good for the asphalt) and the horses careened from side-to-side (I think at one point, one of the horses ran up the sidewalk).


Tokyo (Saturday - Wedding)

The wedding took place at the International House of Japan, where behind the building was a garden,

complete with waterfall.

Obviously, lots of the guests took advantage of the setting to take pictures.

The reception was in a room adjacent to the garden and the dessert buffet (yes, dessert buffet was served outside).

Here's me in my cute little outfit,

under the cherry blossom tree (the other side of which is great for wedding photos),

and you have to have one of these pictures.

The traditional Japanese ceremony was at 11am and the reception ran from noon to 3pm. Here are Takemi and Kumiko in ceremony outfits. They look great!

Now, I don't know if anyone is going to believe this story but it's absolutely true. The cherry blossoms only bloom for one beautiful week and from the time I left the airport to 3pm the day of the wedding, I'd seen cherry blossom trees that hadn't yet bloomed, that had just bloomed, and that were in full bloom. But never in this entire time did I see petals falling from the tree or fallen petals on the ground (and I was definitely looking for this).

At the end the wedding reception, the groom gives a short speech and the couple leaves (they don't go too far, there's a receiving line outside). As they're walking out of the room and everyone is watching them, I turned and looked outside at the garden and saw the first scattered petals flying past the window. Amazing. Congratulations to the happy couple. The wedding was over.


Friday, March 30, 2007

Tokyo (Cherry Blossoms)

I thought I'd get in a few words about cherry blossoms now, although there will be plenty more in the Saturday and Monday posts. The trees can be found all over the city and bloom for only a week before the petals fall and the leaves comes out; while in bloom, the trees are covered in blossoms like snow on trees after a storm. Here's a couple pictures taken a few blocks from the hotel:

When the trees bloom, many Japanese will go to parks for hanami -- a cherry blossom viewing party. Not surprisingly, it's also a popular time to get married. My friend, Meg, who lives in Tokyo tells me that we were very lucky; it seemed like the flowers would bloom earlier with the warm winter, but there was a cold snap before we arrived. Here are some close-ups of blossoms:


Tokyo (Friday)

Friday morning, we all took the subway to Hama-rikyu Gardens (Shimbashi station, 300 Yen entrance fee), where we met Takemi and stopped for a snack and some tea before heading to the wholesale fish market for sushi.

At lunch (a tiny little place with just a counter), I bravely ordered the large (12 pieces) over the small (7 pieces). All the raw fish was very fresh and some of the pieces were fantastic (best raw squid I've ever had, crunchy not chewy). But I sat right next to the proprietress, so when the piece that she said wasn't unagi but certainly visually resembled unagi tasted like a cigarette butt (seriously), I still felt obligated to eat it. It didn't kill me, so I will assume it made me stronger. Also, the 12 pieces defeated me and I had to have Eugene eat 2/3 of my maki.

In the afternoon, Takemi signed us all up for a Hato Bus tour. First stop, Tokyo Tower. There's our bus at the bottom.

From the Tower, you can see in the direction of the gardens and the fish market we visited in the morning (left).

A little to the right you can see Rainbow Bridge.

Next stop was the Imperial Palace Plaza. It was so sunny and bright that most of my pictures seem to highlight the dust on my lens, like this one:

But this one is pretty nice:

Party boats!

We left the tour at Asakusa. At the temple, somewhere behind me in the photo, you can read your fortune on a little slip of paper for 100 Yen (mine was all bad).

We went out to dinner (mmm) then called it a night. Big day tomorrow.


Tokyo (About Getting Around and the Gang)

I once spent a couple days in Madrid. I had a guide book with several detailed maps, a phrase book, a notebook, and a stash of Euros that my Mom pushed into my hands before I got on the plane. Every night in my hostel, I'd pore over all my materials and make a detailed plan (with notes!) of where I was going and what I was going to do the next day and what simple Spanish words and phrases might come in handy.

When I arrived at Narita Airport on Thursday, I had zero of these things. I had a bunch of Euros to change in to Yen (cash is still king in Japan), a couple pages of instructions from Takemi on how to get to to my hotel, and a reservation for a rented cell phone.

Luckily, a bunch of Takemi's Stateside friends had all convened for the wedding and some of them were very prepared (read: not me or Eugene). Here's fuzzy picture of the at least part of the gang (Peter, Crystal, Randy, Katie, Carol, Debbie, and Eugene) on the street at night:

We got around Tokyo mostly through the subway (more accurately, either Takemi or Peter would herd us through the subway). Subway ticket prices in Tokyo are based on distance traveled. In addition, there is more than one subway operator, so it's lucky for us that just recently they've created a unified stored-credit subway card, Pasmo. And it's a a prox card too, so no worrying about which way to insert it! The only drawback is that it's the exact same shade of gray as our hotel key cards and I constantly attempted to use it to open my hotel room.

One last almost neat-o technology note. I have a SkypeIn number. That means people in the know dial a local suburban Chicago number and my computer rings -- the caller pays whatever local suburban Chicago rate, I pay for the subscription for the number ($30/year). This alone already freaks me out (you call a number, my computer rings?!). But Skype will also forward incoming calls to up to 3 different phone numbers. In principle, this means that someone in the States could call me for free on their cell minutes and my rented Japanese cell phone would ring and Skype would charge me only their usual minute rate (2 cents/minute). Awesome. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Some technological glitch made is so I would get many a 'missed call' notice but my phone would never actually ring when someone called my SkypeIn number.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tokyo (On Hotels and Bathrooms)

My hotel room was really nice (thanks, Takemi!).

Here's a picture where you can see one of the beds (there were two) and the wall the of the bathroom. After a couple of days, when the jet-lag had worn off a little, it occurred to me that the wall to the bathroom was translucent in a room where two people were supposed to sleep in different beds. Weird. I'm not really comfortable with that.

I think a good sign that you're in a very non-English speaking country is when the version of CNN shown in your hotel room is CNN International dubbed in Japanese.

The best amenity in the hotel room were the toothbrushes with tiny little tubes of toothpaste, although I also appreciated the large dispensers of soap and shampoo.

Here's a picture of the toilet, which is 5000 times fancier than any toilet in the U.S. or Germany.

For example, the toilet seat is heated and when you sit down, it automatically starts to dribble a little water through the bidet -- just in case you want to use it -- so it doesn't use stale water on you. The little box mounted on the wall next to the toilet offers several options, including a button to make a flushing noise. These fancy toilets are everywhere: hotels, restaurants, ordinary households. That said, you can still find old-style squat toilets in some places.


Tokyo (Wednesday/Thursday)

I'm back from Japan and have a week and a half to catch up on blog posts before I leave Germany again. I'm going to back date the posts to match the days of my trip.

Getting to Japan from Bonn takes 22 hours door-to-door: a short walk to the train station, an hour train ride to Dusseldorf, an hour flight to London, an 11 hour flight to Tokyo, a 2 hour bus ride (damned traffic) to the Akasaka district of Tokyo, and a 10 minute cab ride to my hotel. I left 9am on Wednesday, and with only an hour nap on the plane I arrived at 3pm Thursday -- 9 hours away from finally sleeping: ate lunch, looked for some caffeine, tried to go to a park and found it closed, wandered around Ginza with Takemi and Eugene, ate dinner at a hot pot place, saw Takemi's apartment (he has a Wii!).

Some random notes on traveling. I flew a 1:30pm British Air flight from Dusseldorf. I, of course, ate lunch at the airport before getting on the plane. On the plane, however, they gave out little chicken wraps the size of half a sandwich. A direct flight from Chicago to Honolulu is 9 hours and they serve no food. An hour flight, and they served food. Amazing.

At London Heathrow, I went to buy a book (Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, by the way, which I never started and packed in my check-in luggage on the way back). After months of being in Germany, it was very nearly blissful to walk into the tiny airport bookstore and see all the books in English (Yay! English!). The near irony was that all the books were priced in British pounds and 1.) I haven't a clue how much a pound is and 2.) I didn't have any British pounds (hooray for credit cards).

I finally gave my Bose QuietComfort3 headphones the workout they've been craving. I must admit that my expectations were too high. The background level after noise canceling might be similar to being in a car. But I can't imagine flying without noise canceling headphones again. The difference in quality of experience is remarkable and if you -- yes, you -- intend to listen to anything (music, TV, announcements from the pilot), you need them.

Terminal 1 at London Heathrow is a big pain. For one, I went through security twice in the 2 hours I was there. For another, they don't tell you what gate your flight will be departing on until it's basically time to board. There are electronic boards posted around the terminal which lists all upcoming flights and you wait and wait for a gate number to pop up on the board. When your full flight to Japan pops up as "boarding now" with 30 minutes until takeoff and at one of the furthest gates, there's going to be mad rush. When there is an additional security check before the gate, it's pretty crazy.

Finally, on the descent into Narita, there was some turbulence. And for some odd reason, the background music that is piped in when the plane is on the ground and boarding had started. So, I was a little nauseated, and disoriented, and there was music that I couldn't quite hear coming from somewhere. (I'll pause here for any Battlestar Galactica related jokes readers would like to make. Everyone good? Okay.)


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The State of my iPod

According to my iTunes, since October 9th, 2006, when I officially moved to Germany, I've added 19 albums to my library (let's ignore the odd song or single and the burgeoning number of TV episodes). Of these, 6 were albums I didn't seek out but ended up in my library -- mostly to help my sister out, who doesn't have a computer, but does have an iPod (thanks to her, I now have John Mayer in my library -- John Mayer! I feel dirty). 4 of the albums I got from friends (thanks!) to fill out some big gaps in my library (Nirvana, Jeff Buckley), although, frankly, there's still plenty of gaps. That leaves 9 albums that I actually purchased in 6 months (and, by the way, all but one was bought via the iTunes Music Store -- damned instant gratification).

In the order I bought them:

1.) Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope -- Singer/songwriter with influences from classical, jazz, folk, hip-hop, and Russian music. "Fidelity" is quite possibly the cutest song ever (I linked a YouTube version of the video), and the album roughly breaks down into thirds -- somewhat more 'commercial' songs; more experimental, interesting songs; and 'is the album over yet?' songs. Once every few months, I also feel the need to listen to "Us" off her previous album, Soviet Kitsch, at her myspace page.

2.) Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy -- My favorite, along with the companion album (#4). Austin-based, alt-country group. The album begins with a cover of 60s folk singer Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy," and meanders dream-like through the dark imagery of the title track. Lost children wander until they're not children anymore through songs that veer from rock to country to folk to murder ballads (although their most straightforward murder ballad "Westfall" is from several albums back). In videos and recordings (or here under the podcast list) of their live sets, singer/songwriter Will Sheff tends to deliveries wracked with emotion (in addition to being not much of a singer), giving the songs an extra layer of melodrama that they don't need; on the album, however, he is more restrained and the music speaks for itself -- a rich, but refreshingly underproduced, texture of strings, horns, guitar, drums, and voice. Listening to the album is like reading your favorite book; you may have your favorite parts, but you come back to it over and over and sit in your favorite chair so you can start and finish the journey again. My favorites are the violent rumbles of distant thunder in "For Real", punctuated by guitar stings and the pop-y "Black." You can download selected tracks (free!) from each of their albums on their website (including all the songs I mention) and hear a couple tracks on their myspace page.

3.) Tegan and Sara, So Jealous -- Lesbian, Canadian, twin sister singer/songwriters (they both play guitars). Total teenage girl music. Catchy pop songs, angsty -- sometimes hilariously so -- and only about one thing, the object of the songwriter's affection.

4.) Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy Appendix -- Not quite a full album, but definitely not just odds and ends leftover from the creation of the first album. An alternate reworking of the themes found in the first album, mashing up a Play-Doh castle and rebuilding it:

And kids get lost, lambs out wandering. And bigger, blacker things come calling from outside a tiny garden somebody once laid their hearts on. And kids get lost, and kids get broken. And their diaries get found and opened. And their legs get led astray, and then they lie inside some secret place where the sun looks in the open ceiling. And kids grow up, and kids stop feeling kids, and feel adults, and face away. But in last love dreams, the lost and passed out of this world are softly sighing.
- Last Love Song for Now

5.) Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood -- I hate to say this, but I'm not in love with this album (don't hurt me, Tim!). The songs are pretty; I like Neko Case's voice; and clearly I don't have a problem with alt-country. It just never really draws me in and inspires me to sit down just to listen to it. It feels like great music by which to sit at the bar and have a couple drinks. It does have a couple outstanding songs, but all the best tracks can be downloaded legitly (as far as I can tell).

6.) Weezer, Weezer (blue album) -- When I was at nerd camp during high school, there was a kid who wore the classic Weezer T-shirt (the word Weezer in one color on a basic color tee) everyday (I know he had a least two, since they were different colors). Smart kid. 10 perfectly crafted, charming alternative rock songs from back in the day (1994!) that gently suggest that you don't take these losers too seriously.

7.) Pixies, Wave of Mutilation - Best of Pixies -- On iTunes, it's a double cd (24 tracks) for the price of a regular cd ($10). Unfortunately, my favorite Pixies song is "Wave of Mutilation (U.K Surf version)," which isn't on this album. Still good to have around, I think, for when I really need it.

8.) Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea -- Released in 1998, the second and most recent album from this band, I have the feeling that this group may now be as popular as they've ever been (has some more famous band been name-checking them recently or is it a cult thing?). A 40 minute meditation on tragedy and loss with a folky sound -- strummy guitars, with a brass section, and something called a muscial saw? When you first listen to the album, you'll wonder if the lead singer has any actual singing ability. Later, you'll decide that it isn't important to the quality of the work, which sounds like a criticism but isn't; it's perfect the way it is. The highlight of the album is "Holland, 1945", which is at least partly about Anne Frank.

9.) Cloud Cult, Meaning of 8 -- This is what I know (or have gleaned) about Cloud Cult: they're indie with a big "I," having turned down major record labels so they can be as environmentally friendly as possible. The band consists of a singer, a bassist, a cellist, a drummer, and two visual artists and they're on a North American tour right now (playing Schubas in Chicago in mid-April). Their singer/songwriter used to be an environmental scientist. There are 18 songs on the Meaning of 8 and until April it's only available from their website, where you can buy the mp3s of their album and listen to three of the tracks free (two more tracks from the same album can be heard on their myspace page). "Take Your Medicine" is an infectious earworm of a song that would kill on mainstream radio if it ever made it there (in fact, we'd all be sick of it inside of a month -- maybe two). In fact, most of the first 8 tracks of the album are like that -- i.e., pretty awesome. Then, track 9 is 1:07 minutes of what sounds like the soundtrack of a horror movie, followed by about a good song and a half and 6 tracks of songs that have interesting little musical bits but aren't very good. The second to last track is "The Deaf Girl's Song," a very nice and pretty song, but which somehow makes me feel like I should be watching the climax of the movie, A Mighty Wind. As for what is the music like and what is it about, I'm willing to take suggestions in the comments, since I don't think I can properly describe it.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

State of the Blog

My ideal blog rate is 7 posts a month (oddly enough, 7 was also my ideal netflix disk rate back in the day). Unfortunately, I'm falling way short of my goal for this month and since I'll be doing some serious traveling in the next month or so, I don't see how I'm going to catch up anytime soon.

Even worse, my folder of blog ideas is empty.

On the plus side, I'll probably have a backlog of posts to write when I get back from my first one way, then the other way, round-the-world-ish trip.

But never fear, I'm going to power through this; I promise I won't abandon all six of you reading this.


Thursday, March 15, 2007


TimesSelect at is now free to anyone with a .edu email address (see here for press release).


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Running Around Bonn

Unfortunately, I've managed to get sick, which has ruled out exercise for a while. But I thought I'd put up some photos of things to see while running in Bonn. Here's Poppeldorfer Allee:

At the end of the street is a pretty yellow building behind which there is a botantical garden (I took the picture on the right last fall).

Crossing the railroad tracks to the center of the city, there is the main building of the university and a big lawn:

The university building is this yellow one on the left.

Past the university is the river. Looking to the left (north), you see the Kennedy Bridge the connects Bonn (left) to Beuel (right).

Looking right (south).


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Terrifying Tofu

Have any of you tried to freeze tofu before? If so, this probably won't be so interesting to you.

I'd heard that freezing tofu changes its texture, so I thought I'd give it a try. I also knew that it would take on a yellow-ish hue. But this is terrifying; on the right, the unopened tofu package, on the left, straight out of my freezer. It's caramel colored!

Once defrosted, it looks more tofu like (thankfully) with a spongy texture.