Went to seafood lunch at restaurant A claims is called "J. Ngaw", but he's in the past been way off at what English people call his restaurants, and this is one of those places without an English sign in front of it, or tourists inside, so there may be good reason for it not to be in Google. Had some good food, posted it to Facebook, got good comments. Best part was probably a grilled fish packed with standard Thai seasonings of lemon grass, galangal root and lime leaves, skin heavily salted and then garnished with cilantro, served with a lime-cilantro-chili (and some other stuff) dip.
Back to A's office, worked, posted on FB, watched immense storm roll in, shaking windows on 28th floor, knocking out power for 15 minutes.
Drove out to a wrap party at a restaurant owned by one of A's sisters in Pak Kret, about an hour's drive north around rush hour traffic (mainly by hurtling along shoulders), and about a half hour drive back (by driving at about 150 km/h along 80 km/h roads). The restaurant may be called Ban Bung Tan, according to Google.
He challenges me to a game of Scrabble. Okay. What stakes? I agree to US$10 a game. I beat him easily the first game, with a bit of luck. I think he was going a little easy on me at first, but is surprised to lose. So we play a second game for the second stakes, but this time I draw the bag against him and crush him. So we have to play a third game, and it's starting to feel like I'm playing Chris. This time, it's US$20 for the game, and $0.05 per point. I'm doing fine halfway through, but then he plays dirty, and puts a whole plate of crab curry in front of me. We're playing on 10-minute clocks, and I can't eat crab curry and play quickly at the same time. I go 30 second overtime and it costs me a 9-point game, and $0.45. He hasn't collected yet. On the bright side, I ate a whole plate of crab curry all by myself.
Then we join the rest for dinner, about 20 people. A, continuing evil, serves me an amazing crab dish I've never seen before, looks like it's served in banana leaves, and flavoured with lemon grass and galangal. I shouldn't have told him I had a weakness for galangal. I can only pick at it because I am full of crab curry. There's also a ground chicken dish which appears to be about 50% bird's eye chilis by weight, and is about as spicy as you would imagine. It's the first thing I've eaten this trip that has been uncomfortably spicy. R says it's about a four, but admits that he can't eat anything close to a nine without discomfort.
After dinner, A stages games for his staff, because Thai people need not only to eat, but to compete and gamble to have fun. He tells them the winners will score thousands of bhat (tens of dollars), and the losers get to clean up the office after a week of everyone being too busy to do so.
There are more competitive versions of Connect 4 and Jenga, during which A and I play a fourth game, for higher stakes. We're both playing all out, but I eke out a win with a late-game bingo. I don't tell him my secret, which is that I love playing pass'n'play on the iPhones, which is what we're doing, because you can replay phonies, and my SOWPODS confusion doesn't hurt me. I would have had trouble playing GRAVIDAS with confidence, otherwise.
Then A makes me lead off the karaoke competition, knowing I'm uncomfortable with it (he has an excellent singing voice, I don't), but knowing it will break the ice for some other lousy voices in the competition. I sing first "Ue o muite" (Sukiyaki), then "I want to hold your hand", then some random Japanese enka that he made me sing just to demonstrate I could sight-read Japanese karaoke subtitles, before reassigning me to karaoke judging duty for the others.
The last event was bingo (with some of A's enhancements, which I didn't understand, involving some wildcard chips that featured animals on them). A appointed me the bingo caller, so I got to surprise him by doing it in Thai. I gave credit to N, who taught me to count from 1 to 99 in Thai a few years ago when we were stuck in traffic for an hour driving a few blocks.
Wed 27 Jun 2012 22:00:58 EDT
I got up yesterday morning, packed carefully according to which items needed to go through which security and subsequently be used where, complicated by my intention to leave my bags at the hotel front desk at noon before check-in time rolls around.
R came to pick me up, and we met A's Scrabble posse for seafood lunch at a restaurant specializing in Hainanese chicken (poached, with dipping sauce), but made to Thai tastes, with a wonderful mix of soy sauce, sugar, ginger, chili and garlic in the sauce.
I met A's nephew, and we became iPhone GameCenter buddies, so that we could play A-Math together. As of when I write this, I haven't lost the game in progress, yet. We then went to the nephew's cafe, the oddly named Chimney Brick Toast Coffee house, where R and I spent a productive hour or two developing and testing the Thai edition of the TSH tournament management program.
Then via a brief stop at the Thai Crossword Association offices, overlooking all of Bangkok from their 28-storey height, I went to Siam Square for a 90-minute massage and chiropractic treatment, both much needed.
Then to E. Pochana for the posse to watch me eat another plate of crab curry. Would I like a second one? If I could bring it home to Canada, sure, but I think the food inspection agency would probably seize it at the border. I know I would.
Then to a street stall selling Chinese ginger/tofu dessert soups (not my favourite, but a good way to calm down the stomach, say if you have just single-handedly decimated the crab population of Southeast Asia), and off to the airport with plenty of time to spare, if you drive at twice the posted speed limit and don't hit traffic.
Farewells all round, through security, a quick stop at duty-free to buy T-shirts, an even quicker stop at the Thai Air lounge to shower, brush my teeth and refill myw ater bottle, then to the gate with six minutes to spare for StarAlliance Gold pre-boarding.
I slept okay on the ANA-operated flight from BKK to NRT. This time, the in-flight seat-back video system was working, so I slept through all of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, then woke up with the breakfast announcement and watched the missed bits of an unmemorable film I'd seen 90% of on another flight, where two CIA agents fail to play any Scrabble at all while competing for the affections of Reese Witherspoon.
The breakfast was surprisingly good (okayu, with a variety of well chosen things to put in it), and the flight in general was a positive experience, except that everything in the plane feels about 10% too small for the size of my body. And no electrical power at seats in economy.
On arrival, I was for a change not in a hurry, so I stopped to shave and freshen up even before immigration, then claimed my bags and went through customs. As has happened in the past, the customs inspector looked askance at the amount of luggage I was bringing up from Bangkok, but was so overcome by relief when I explained in Japanese that I was just here to visit relatives that he waved me on through without inspection. (Not that I was carrying any contraband.)
I then sat in the Meeting Place lounge, which had the ideal confluence of electrical power, free WiFi and relative quiet, in between directing tourists who seemed to think Meeting Place meant Information Desk. I got caught up on the night's email, refined my shopping itinerary for the day, then decided I had had enough of the sweltering terminal building and headed off in search of a cooler space.
I picked up a light lunch (three rice balls: cod roe, pollack roe and tuna mayo) to go, with a bottle of green tea, at a Leo Plus convenience store in the terminal building, for about CAD 6.50.
I've found that cooler space now, aboard the SkyLiner, twice-hourly service that takes you straight to Ueno station in Tokyo in less than an hour for about CAD 31. It's air-conditioned, the seats recline more than on an airplane, there's enough legroom to store your suitcases, a seat back tray table and electrical power at your seat.
I'd stay up and work, but as this is the only time I'll have to nap before check-in, that's it for now.
Thu 28 Jun 2012 10:26:35 EDT
... and with that I was out like a light, waking up the sound of a conductor politely telling me that we had arrived at Ueno Station, the end of the line. I gathered my things quickly, found the Hotel New Ueno next to the station without difficulty, and left the bulk of my luggage there, except for an empty carry-on suitcase to fill with shopping and a messenger bag to keep my valuables in.
The desk clerk directed me to the nearest stationer, a place called Okamoto a little east of the JR station. It wasn't entirely what I needed, as it was really an office supplies store rather than a school supplies store, but it was still an easy place to kill an hour. You know you're in the right country to go shopping for office supplies when there's a huge display at the entrance of cool stationery supplies that have recently been reviewed on popular stationery review programmes on television.
After spending a significant amount more than an average customer, I engaged in a social interaction with the store manager that I realized later on might seem odd to a non-Japanese person. As she finished ringing up the purchase, she frowned almost imperceptibly, then inquired delicately if I was from this neighbourhood. Given that I was wearing shorts (not acceptable attire for a Japanese male of my age during business hours), had a suitcase (empty, for loading with purchases), was obsessively taking pictures (okay, the Japanese do that too) with a two-year-old camera (that's the non-Japanese part), and was doing nothing whatsoever to act Japanese, it's hard to say what tipped her off. I can pass with difficulty for Japanese, but see no point in doing so, as it works out better if I look foreign, torque my interlocutor's stress levels a bit as they brace themselves for the social unpredictability of an encounter with a foreigner, then act and speak completely Japanese, so that they're flooded with relief mixing with residual adrenalin, and off-balance for whatever I need to ask them to do; it's a judo thing.
Anyway, I explain what I am doing in her store, shopping for school supplies for my kids, so that they can study Japanese properly in Canada. She lights up (relief! adrenalin! relief! adrenalin!) and says that while normally my purchase would entitle me to a significant number of loyalty card points, she's happy to instead give me a bunch of merchandise for my kids for free instead, because I wouldn't be back in time to spend points. I agree, because it would be awkward to refuse a gift for my kids, and then we're both happy because we're all square.
Just in case you're not Japanese enough to know what I meant by that, here's a more detailed explanation. In most parts of the world, a retail transaction is purely a monetary one. You give the merchant a sum of money which precisely compensates the merchant for the value of the item or service, and you're done. Not in Japan. In Japan, it's a social interaction, and like all social interactions, one party ends up incurring a burden of social obligation. It doesn't matter that I thanked her profusely for having a shop in the right place selling all the right things. If I spend more than the usual customer, I am bringing prosperity to her business, and if she does not act quickly to bring us back into balance, things can very quickly get out of hand. I might mention to a Japanese friend that I had spent a lot of money at this store, but couldn't get points because I was a foreigner. The Japanese friend would see that the manager had behaved improperly in a social interaction, and could therefore not be trusted to behave properly in future, and should therefore not be given any further custom, and so on.
Just one of the many things that I like about Japan, along with the fact that these calculations take place all the time, with exquisite precision and amazing speed.
From Okayama, I was going to go to Yodobashi Camera, but got distracted by a street vendor doing his job attracting customers at the entrance to the Marui department store. I bought a couple of nice hand-made lacquerware bowls for my mom, then went inside and bought some jinbeis for the boys, who have outgrown last year's already.
After a break at the Starbucks in the basement of Marui, I tried again to make it to Yodobashi. This time I got distracted by the Yamashiroya toy shop, which was as big and at least as well supplied as Hakuhinkan on the Ginza. That was another happy hour spent looking for cool stuff. Unlike the store around the corner that advertises "adult toys", this one sells toys for kids that the kids will have great difficulty prying out of their dads' hands.
Then finally to Yodobashi Camera. They finally had iPhone lenses back in stock, and I was finally able to buy the fisheye lens I had wanted for a while. Oddly, the Princeton lenses are now all also sold under the Elecom brand; not sure why. This Yodobashi is significantly smaller than the one at Akihabara though, and does not have a bookshop or stationery department.
Then I got nostalgic, and walked all up and down the Ameyoko market: clothes, pinball, dried goods and seafood. Vendors hawking great big containers of sea urchin or toro or various kinds of seaweed made me rather hungry.
I went to a random noodle shop on the Chuo-dori, put my money in the ticket machine, and had a hiyashi nameko soba. A guy sat down next to me in the bar. I think the demographic at this time of day was travellers killing time before catching a train, and this guy had more luggage than I did. He started arguing with the chef about why his favourite dish wasn't listed anymore (a giant-sized portion of a basic noodle dish). The chef said he hadn't listed it anymore because he couldn't sell it at a price that people wanted to buy it at; the customer said that he was a regular customer that wanted it; the chef said it had been a few years since he had listed it; the customer said he had been away travelling, and they kept going back and forth.
Finally, I had to intervene. I spend too much of my life being either a dad or a tournament director to listen to pointless argument for too long. I told the customer: "Look, if you really like a dish, and it's important to you, you have to go to the restaurant every day and order it, so that the restaurant will keep making it." They both calmed down, and the chef made him the dish in appreciation of the customer's alleged longtime status.
Then back to the hotel to unload and unpack, before getting on the train to Takadanobaba to meet Alan and his friend Francesco for an excellent dinner at a Nepali place called Maya. I don't think I'd ever had really good Nepali food before, but this was certainly it. Spicy momos, some sort of weird chewy giblet dish, and three kinds of curry with naan; along with great dinner conversation about the effect of living and travelling extensively away from home.
The lack of sleep on the flight, followed by the really long day of shopping and dining, left me exhausted when I returned to the hotel. I passed out on the futon the moment I saw it, then woke up about an hour later to get ready for bed properly. I slept soundly.
Fri 29 Jun 2012 02:53:51 EDT
Slept in until about 9:30 local time. I still feel like I am on Bangkok time (UTC +7h), but am currently in Tokyo (UTC +9h), and I keep my computer set to Toronto (UTC -4h), so it took me a few minutes to figure out what time it was and whether or not I ought to wake up. I had been thinking about heading over to near Hakusan station before lunch with my uncle, but decided my early morning would be better spent clearing my head, assessing suitcase volumes, and catching up on email. I'll still need to make that trip later on, unless I stumble across a residential neighbourhood with some shops that I haven't found near Ueno, like a supermarket (rather than a glorified convenience store catering to travellers) and a stationer with school rather than business supplies.
Really enjoying the proximity to Ueno station in all other respects though, as anytime I want to get somewhere, it feels like it saves me 10~15 minutes of getting to a major transportation hub. I'm also really impressed with the soundproofing in the hotel, as not only can I not hear any other guests, I hear no street or train noises at all.
Met my Uncle Mikio at the standard meeting point at JR Ueno Station, the statue of winged victory, at 11:00, then went out in search of an early lunch. It's a neighbourhood that we both have a very dated familiarity with; the last time I was living and working in Japan in 1985, the train from Tsukuba went to Ueno, so it was my first place I would go shopping; before Mikio retired, he worked regularly at an office in nearby Asakusa. However, we both quickly realized that while we had planned the early meeting to avoid the lunch rush, none of our favourite restaurants were in fact open yet at 11:00. Also, FWIW, the restaurant industry in Tokyo has taken a double hit from the tsunami reactor failures and the stagnant economy, so with most people taking a packed lunch to work, it's doubtful whether or not there would be a lunch rush.
We ended up at a large sushi-ya on Chuo-douri called Sushi Zanmai, mainly because (1) it was open, and (2) it had freaky, awesome fish in the tanks at the entrance. By large, I mean that it had about six times as much sushi fridge space as a typical sushi-ya back home in Toronto, and all full of stuff that you never see back there. We ordered the two biggest lunch specials (and a special order of Zingiber mioga pickled in sweet vinegar) and ate like kings.
Mikio still had time left over, so he came with me as far as Ikebukuro to help me shop. We walked to Tokyu Hands, went up to the 7th floor (the 8th floor is the cat cafe), then worked our way back down. With his help, I was able to locate a year's worth of stationery supplies in less than an hour, then went down a few levels to find kitchen toys and bento boxes with somewhat less success. Then it was time for him to head home; after we said our goodbyes I finished my shopping there, went downstairs to get my tax refund, and walked over to the Starbucks at Sunshine 60 to take a break and review my shopping list.
Fri 29 Jun 2012 06:04:42 EDT
I have to make a point next time of just coming to Ikebukuro first thing, no matter how tired I am, as I can pretty much do all the shopping I need to at Tokyu Hands, Toys R Us (in Japanese, Toizarasu), and Junkudo (books). It helps that Toys R Us in Japan sells furikake, and has the best selection of Japanese cartoon lunchboxes that I've seen in town so far, and their toy and game selection isn't bad.
I really like the 8th floor at Junkudo. It has a very well stocked foreign language study section for Japan, including a whole bookcase full of books on Latin and classical Greek, and a long-running series of at least 50 volumes of illustrated phrasebooks for wherever one might want to go in the world, including some pretty obscure ones. It also features the kids' section, where I was able to get everything I wanted for the boys and their friends, and the only difficulties were (1) wanting to spend the rest of my trip browsing, and (2) carrying a large basket full of books down to the first floor cash.
They also have an excellent customer reward programme, which consists of coupons that you can redeem at the 4th floor cafe. So two bags full of books got me a free iced Earl Grey tea and two slices of cheesecake, which may end up being dinner, unless somewhere between here and my hotel I find a whole lot of energy and motivation.
I've had a great time shopping today, but the muggy heat (or rather, the lack of air-conditioned respite from it) is starting to get to it, and I'm looking forward to cooling off in my hotel room more than anything else.
Sat 30 Jun 2012 10:24:56 EDT
My fear that last night's dinner would be cheesecake was not borne out, because in order to get back on the train at Ikebukuro station, I had to walk through the Seibu department store food court, and it is impossible to do so and remain hungry for long. I picked up a box of negi-maguro chirashi, a package of inari, and one of unagi nigiri (or as the auto-corrected hotel menu I later saw would have it, unagi Nigeria sushi), and was very happy to eat excellent sushi twice in one day.
I spent the rest of the evening watching Japanese TV (mainly on the rights of the handicapped in Japan, something that would not have been talked about publicly when Iw as little) while repacking for the rest of my trip.
I woke up this morning refreshed, if a bit stiff from sleeping on the Japanese futon. With a good deal of effort, I schlepped my now heroic quantities of luggage (about 55 kg) to the Ueno Shinkansen station, very glad that it wasn't any further, but still drenched in sweat by the time I made it all the way to platform 20 on the fourth basement level of the station, where the relatively new bullet train line runs. I had time to see five trains go by, including one of the Max series of double-decker bullet trains, before boarding mine for a 45-minute ride to Utsunomiya.
I passed the time eating breakfast, in the form of an unagi-don bento bought at the station, complete with a chemical heat pack to serve it piping hot.
At Utsunomiya, I lugged my bags across the street in front of the station to the Chisun hotel, left them with the front desk and waited for my cousin Keiko to pick me up.
I spent the rest of the day reconnecting with Keiko, her husband, and her daughters, who are a year younger than my kids, and who remind me of my cousin when she was younger in different ways. We went for a walk in a nearby park that featured a cool slide for kids, built into a large hill with a sliding surface made of a large number of small rollers. We played ball. I watched the kids play Super Mario Party. They watched Japanese editions of things like Penguins of Madagascar and iCarly. We went out for dinner at a gyoza restaurant at the station (Utsunomiya is renowned for its gyoza); I had the sampler plate and liked best the ume-shiso gyoza, which were outstanding. I kept the girls amused through the meal by playing Madagascar and Shaun the Sheep on my laptop, so the grownups could talk amongst themselves. We bought a few gyoza souvenirs, Keiko helped me rebook my trip tomorrow to Narita (I had originally booked by train via Ueno, but it costs a little less to take a direct bus trip from immediately outside the hotel, and it saves me taking my bags from Ueno JR to Ueno Keisei). Then I talked for a long time with Kristen on Google Voice, and am now ready for bed.
Sun 1 Jul 2012 12:01:40 EDT
Got up at 9:00, bought two Marronnier bus tickets (an adult fare and a child fare, so that I could check a second suitcase), walked to the station, bought strawberry Kitkats and some onigiri and sushi for breakfast and lunch, then back to the hotel to Skype with the family until it was time to go.
Slept on and off on the three-hour bus ride, which followed the Tohoku expressway as far as the outer ring road around Tokyo, then down to Tokyo Harbour, past Tokyo Disneyland and on to Narita. First class check-in went quickly. I took a look at the toy shop, found a surprising number of Godzilla figures, including the newer JPY 6000 premium ones, and some large Gundam models, but nothing I was looking for. At one point, a man walked up to me holding two Transformers toys and asked me if I spoke English. When I said yes, he looked disappointed, and said "But then you can't read Japanese". I didn't entirely follow his logic, but told him it was his lucky day, and translated the packaging for him.
A visit to the bookstore was more productive, picking up a couple of magazines and manga for the boys, though I was horrified to learn that the Shogaku n-nensei manga series has been discontinued; I grew up with them. A visit to the big Akihabara-branded duty free shop turned up boxes of green tea Kitkat, but no senbei.
I was tempted to save a bit of money and just walk right past my favourite sushi bar, Sushi Kyotatu, but then remembered what I'd told the guy in the noodle shop on Friday. Kyotatu didn't look like they would be discontinuing their tuna special anytime soon, but I ordered it to help remind them how good it is. They probably don't need the reminder; they have signs up saying that they get their fish from the top-rated tuna dealer in the Tsukiji fish market, and the five itamae have the swagger of chefs who know they are serving the best. I saved the last piece of chu-toro for the end, and was still savouring its aftertaste as I walked into the ANA lounge.
I picked up some maki to snack on as I settled into my favourite seat (electricity, privacy, plenty of table and bench space, and a line of sight to see when the massage chairs are free), and sorted photos and checked email until it was time to go.
I was one of the first on the plane, and sitting in seat 2G I'll probably be the fourth or fifth one off. I'm going to try to sleep as much as I can, while rewatching boring or familiar movies. Contraband. Young Adult. A Fish Called Wanda. The Usual Suspects. it's worked okay so far.
(and that's about as far as I got before I succumbed to jet lag and travel fatigue for a week.)