Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Letter, 2012

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2012 was another busy year, a year filled with happiness and sadness. Sadness came when Wilf’s mother, Evelyn, passed away on Christmas Day, 2011. She wished her caregivers a Merry Christmas, laid down for a nap, and passed away in her sleep. She was coming up on her 99th birthday and, while her health had been declining, she was still doing well and was happy to visit often with her family. In May, Wilf and Sharon’s family members gathered for a memorial service and internment ceremony in Winnipeg, remembering Evelyn and sharing our memories of her.

When we wrote to you last Christmas we had just completed a cruise from Chile to Argentina. We stayed on for several weeks in the fascinating city of Buenos Aires, enjoying summer south of the equator. Shortly after we returned to the northern winter we flew off to Hawaii to spend some time with Sharon’s parents.

During the growing season (you know – February through November) we tackled a couple of major outdoor projects, and tried to keep ahead of the ever voracious deer. So far we continue to keep ahead of them, but it requires constant vigilance.

We took our yearly trip to Montana – this time we went later in July than we usually do and we found the sweet spot of hot sunny weather. Sharon took the opportunity to take a week long quilting course in Kalispell, and invited her quilting buddies Nan and Lisa to join her. This made for an interesting week, with three hyped up quilters whirling through the house! Wilf took the opportunity to get in some fly fishing.

2012 was the year we made our return to Japan. We had such a good time on our trip in 2009 that we knew a return trip would happen. This time we visited Tokyo again, but spent most of our time on the southern island of Kyushu and again we had a wonderful time. We visited a volcano, had ourselves buried in volcano heated sand on a beach, visited a hot spring spa, went to a sumo wrestling tournament and ate a wide variety of interesting, strange and delicious things.

This year Sharon’s brother Bill, her brother Mike and sister-in-law Christine will be spending Christmas in Victoria with us, and with Sharon’s parents, Joan and Doug. We are grateful that we will be able to celebrate the season together. We hope that you have been well in 2012 and that 2013 brings you joy.

With love,

Wilf and Sharon


It’s getting closer, but no snow yet…




And the cargo ships are beginning to show up, spending time on anchor at the mouth of the Saanich Inlet – hanging out, waiting for a berth somewhere…

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The whole world, in my hand.

Once upon a time Tokyo Bay was all about industry and military. And it probably still is, in places. But in the area called Odaiba land has been reclaimed from the ocean and a fantastic amount of building has gone on. Bridges have been built, transit links have been established. And acres and acres of shopping and entertainment complexes have been built. And, because why not, there is a copy of the Statue of Liberty.

We walked around a bit, decided that the gaming complexes and amusement arcades were not for us. Instead we decided to visit the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology - also called Miraikan, may be an acronym for something. It is an amazing facility. While there is lots aimed at children, most of the science on display is at a really high level. We couldn't decide if we felt really smart or really dumb, being there. Know quite a bit more about various aspects of physics than previously.

But, oh, but. There is one truly astonishing thing to see. It is called GeoCosmos. It is a sphere 6 meters across that hangs from the ceiling. It is completely covered with more than 10,000 LED panels. With more than 10 million pixels available images of incredible clarity are shown. And the images, of course, are of the earth. It is staggering in its beauty. The picture shifts across the surface, spinning along. The clouds drift along. Sometimes it switches to a night view. The sphere is housed in a huge glass box of a room with a ramp that spirals down around it. But, best of all, at ground level couches are arranged where you can lay and watch the world spin by it all its glory.

Look here:

Hello Yokohama

We decided to make a little road trip down the way to the city of Yokohama. It is the second largest city in Japan, with a population of 3.5 million. We took the train from Shinjuko station, which is a five minute walk from our hotel (by the way, Shinjuko station handles over 3.5 million people per day, has 35 tracks and over 200 exits and it always feels like a victory when we get either in or out of the place!). Thirty minutes from Shinjuko and we were in Yokohama.

Our lunch plan revolved around the Ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama, 15 minutes away from the main station on another train. The main floor of the museum contains a gift shop. But down two floors is the main thing. In full scale a street scene from Yokohama in 1958 has been recreated. The little shops contain tiny little ramen shop - there are eight of them. Each one represents a famous ramen shop in Japan, with a style specific to a certain region. Fortunately they offer half size bowls of ramen, so we could try more than one style. After we had our two bowls of ramen we were approached by a young woman doing a tourism survey. Turns out that she is Taiwanese, and that she studied English for two years at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She nearly fell over when she discovered Wilf was from Winnipeg - although she found the cold a bit much she had only happy memories of her time there and wanted to talk about it. So, you never know, do you?

One of the other attractions of Yokohama is an enormous Ferris wheel. Apparently it is the largest in the world. We decided to give it a whirl. It took fifteen minutes to glide around and the views were really amazing. On a very clear day Fuji-san is sometimes visible in the far distance, but not today.

It turns out that Yokohama is a big craft beer town. An American fellow named Brian Baird runs Baird Brewing Company, and we went to his taproom in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. They recommended their Yokohama branch - the Baird Basamichi Taproom. We paid them a visit and didn't just discover good beer. Turns out they've got someone there doing real Southern barbecue. Not grilling, but actual smokehouse style barbecue. Holy doodle was it good! W had a sampler of brisket, pork loin and rib. So - the best Italian food we've had was in Buenos Aires, and for southern barbecue we had to go to Yokohama - go figure!

Don't play with your food....

Let's talk about okonomiyaki. I have the hardest time remembering that name, so I tend to refer to this food item as okiedokie pancakes. We had them last time we were in Japan, and on Sunday we went down to Tokyo Bay to a part of town know for its okonomiyaki restaurants. Even at 6:00 all the restaurants on the street were almost full, but we found one with a table for us.

At these restaurants you sit at a table with a cooking surface built into it. This pretty much requires serious amounts of beer be on hand, because it gets hot! The waitress brings out a small mixing bowl, mixes it all together and pours out onto the griddle, where the cooking gets going.

We decided to try a version that is thinner than the classic okiedokie, more like a crepe than a pancake. We chose the seafood version, and our gal brought out a bowl heaping with goodies, and shredded vegetables and the batter. Once mixed and on the grill she attached it with a pair of spatulas, chopping the seafood up and blending it all together. We then had to wait, watching, until it got all brown and lovely. We each had a big spatula and a small triangular spatula which were our utensils. We would scrape up pieces as the edges cooked - yummy!

Round two also started with a smaller bowl of beef, vegetables and a thicker batter. It was piled up and formed into a pancake. The trick is to cook it just right, then flip it over for finishing. When it is ready it gets a coating of barbque sauce, piles of Bonita flakes and a serious lashing of mayonnaise. I know, it sounds really weird. But it is so good!

Monday, November 19, 2012

How hard can it be?

I often comment about how happy we are when we actually find the restaurant or attraction we we are seeking. Perhaps you are wondering how hard that be? It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find things. We are illiterate. Pretty much totally so. When we've been in, say, Germany I may not know what kuchenstrasse means, but at least if I see it on a sign I can recognize it. In Japan the odds are pretty good that I won't even be able to recognize the symbols.

As an example, while in Fukuoka we decided to go to a ramen restaurant called Ichiran. We knew about it. We had a very good English language map provided by the tourist information centre. We knew where we were. We walked up and down the street a bit. Nothing. We looked down what looked like an alley but turned out to be a short street of restaurants. No Ichiran that we could see. Check out the picture at the bottom of this post. That is, in fact, the restaurant. We figured it was the one because there was a line up. Nothing on the ticket machine, though, that said Ichiran. We asked someone in line. I'm sure they're thinking 'Lady, it says Ichiran all over the front of this place'.

While Wilf was taking the picture I looked at the row of boxes in front of me. In tiny little print in one corner it said 'Ichiran'. So why is it famous? Porky ramen of deep porky porkiness. Oh boy, was it good. We bought our tickets from the machine out front and went inside. We were seated at a long counter that looked like a series of library carrels - dividers between the seats, a curtain that rolled up directly in front of you. Suddenly up comes the curtain and someone you cannot see is there handing out a form (thankfully in English) on which you specify how spicy, how much garlic and green onion, how hard the noodles, etc. Down goes the curtain and you wait. Shortly the curtain goes up and there is your bowl of ramen. Once our ramen was delivered the curtain came down, leaving us in solitary splendour to slurp up the delicious tonkotsu. Save some broth and ring the bell, hand in another form to order extra noodles or, in our case, additional slices of pork. Pay the person and wait. Up comes the curtain and your order appears. Still no direct contact with a waiter. No chitchat with your neighbour, either (although we did figure out how to unlatch the divider between us and fold it back a bit)

So that day was a successful expedition. It isn't always so - last night I finally went into a real estate office to get help finding the restaurant we wanted. And when we did find it I could actually read the hiragana writing that gave the name of the place - except that they had folded one panel of the curtain out of the way and that panel had the character that made it all make sense. It's always something.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Been to Hell, got the postcard.

Okay, not Hell. But "The Hells". All those lovely hot springs are one way that excess volcanic energy heat gets dealt with. The hot sands of Ibusuki are another. When we arrived in the coastal town of Beppu we thought we were seeing bits of fog or cloud snagged on some of the hills. But, no. We were seeing clouds of steam venting out of the ground here and there.

There are 8 'Hells' in the hills above Beppu. We took the city bus up to visit three that are close together. First up was the 'Sea Hell', so called because the water the bubbles up is a lovey aquamarine colour. It is also well above 40 degrees C. They hang bamboo baskets of eggs in the water to hard boil them and you can buy them for a snack. They also have a lovely garden with a big lily pond filled with lily pads two and three feet across that a child can stand on. Heat from the hot water also warms a greenhouse full of exotic plants.

Next door was the 'Monk's Head Hell' Here the hot water comes up through heavy thick grey mud. It comes up in huge bubbles that apparently look like the shaved head of a monk. Can't attest to that, but they were pretty interesting.

Last up was the 'Cooking Pot Hell'. Back in the day this was a place where people cooked their food. Now it has some really lurid statuary and some really fierce pools of super hot water. The water here is well past 50 degrees C. In some places is it red, other places is blue. Some of the Hells have onsens attached to them - we were told that the the spa at the monk's head hell is very good for you, but you'll smell like sulfur for a week after. Most of the Hells also had footbaths,too.

So, Beppu was the last of the geothermal adventures for us. On then to our last stop on Kyushu island - Fukuoka.

An afternoon with the big boys

One of the things we wanted to do on this trip to Japan was go to a Sumo wrestling match. A series of championship matches rotates through the country during the year, and the big match in the late Fall is in Fukuoka, on the Southern island of Kyushu. Through the wonders of the Internet were able to order tickets and have them delivered right to us at home.

The tournament began on November 11, but before then we began seeing sumo on tv. Given that Japanese tv is pretty much incomprehensible we figured perhaps it was highlights of previous matches. We watched some and did some research on-line to prepare for the tournament.

Our ticket gave us access for the whole day, but we figured nine hours of anything, let alone sumo, would be way too much. We decided we would go just after 2:00, when the second tier guys were up, and watch them and the top tier guys. We were very relieved to be given a brochure, in English, about the history, the ceremony and the rules of the sport. We also got an English language version of the bout card so we could figure out who was who.

When we ordered our tickets we asked for seats with backs on them, which put us up fairly high, but there was no way we were going to be able to sit on the floor cushions for several hours. In the end it was sort of like being at the circus - there was so much going on all the time. And the preparation and staring and stomping before the match often took longer than the actual match itself.

It used to be that only the Japanese were sumo wrestlers, but that hasn't been the case for some time. There are a lot of men from Mongolia, who are on the small side and therefore have to have some pretty fancy technique. There are also a handful of Westerners - mainly from places like Georgia, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet Bloc countries. They're tall, and more obviously muscled than the Asian competitors.

Part of the fun was the audience. When we first got there the crowd was pretty sparse. Up at the top, behind us, there was one woman who was a big fan. She had this high clear voice and we could hear her calling 'Gambare' to her favourites. Gambare was the usual cheer in the building - it means 'Do your best!'. By about 4:30 the place was really filling up - troops of school kids filling in the very top rows. During the early part of the day I could make out what the announcer and referee were saying but eventually there was just too much cheering and calling. At 6:00 the event was over for the day. The lobby was a free for all of shopping, and then everyone trooped outside, where express buses to the major subway/train stations were waiting to take us all away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ryokan dining

Part of the deal with staying at a Japanese inn (ryokan) is the food. The Sanga Ruyokan in Kurakowa included dinner and breakfast each day. These meals are major productions - it is kind of like going to a huge buffet, but they just bring you one of everything. By the time all is said and done there are usually about 12 different courses. Some are big things, some are just a few bites. The range of tastes and textures is quite amazing.

We had two nights to try this kind of Japanese food. We ate in the dining room, which divided up into little bays and cubbies. Our attendant looked after us and another table that we could see through a screen panel. She spoke a little bit of English and could give us some idea of what we were eating. We couldn't always tell.... Overall I think I can say that we enjoyed both meals.

On the first night the centrepiece of the meal was chicken nabe, which is a hotpot dish cooked at the table, where chicken and vegetables are cooked in a light broth. After the chicken and veg are lifted out and eaten, rice and an egg are added to the broth to make a type of soup.

On the second night the centrepiece was beef suikiyaki, which is not a grilled dish. Again a hot pot is used, filled with a very rich broth, to which slices of beef and vegetables are added. We had a smaller bowl, into which a raw egg was broken. As the beef and veg were cooked they were taken out and swirled in the small bowl. Their heat would cook the egg a bit, making a sort of sauce.

On both nights, before and after the main course there were all kinds of dishes. Sashimi both nights - both fish, seafood and horse meat. There was a tempura course. There was fish - one night it was a whole small fish that had been grilled on a stick, the second night a different kind of fish was steamed and served with a vinegar sauce. There was tofu (very fresh tofu) done many ways. There was a huge variety of pickled things - vegetables, seaweed and fish. There was miso soup. On the second night we had a clear soup with noodles early in the meal and miso soup later.

Each night there was only one thing that each didn't like. In both cases it was both a texture violation and an unpleasant taste. Might have been able to take the taste, but the texture turned out to be the deal breaker...

There was a dessert each night - something small and light - and a perfect ending.

Here are some pictures from both nights:

The Freshest Fish I Ever Ate

Tonight we had another culinary adventure. Wilf had read about a restaurant where you could catch your own fish and they would prepare it for you. Off we went, first by subway and then on foot. It turns out to be a huge place - like warehouse sized. In the middle are two big boats. And in the water - around the boats - fish! We told the waitress we wanted to fish and she brought a bamboo rod, a net and a shrimp for bait. And before you could say Boo - Wilf had caught our dinner. The waitress suggested half the fish as sashimi and the other half grilled, which is what we did.

It was delicious!