Thursday, June 30, 2016

Which Normal is Yours? – Erich

I love seeing the differences in places. As you may know from reading past blogs, I enjoy taking pictures of things that strike me as cool, elegant, or just unfamiliar from my point of view. But of course, a Thai citizen visiting the United States would think my normal was odd. It's all a matter of perspective.

As an example, I enjoy seeing fire hydrants in various nations. Here you can see a Thai design which is very different that we have seen before. It is sort of like the Princess Leia hairdo design of hydrants.
The Inspiration of the Star Wars stylist
Other great things seen in the street include this alley. It's not so much odd, I just liked the design of it, with the narrow street, the tall buildings, the graceful curve, and the multitude of balconies.
There is an arc to this that I admire
Of course one had to supply power to people crowded into a city. Check out this tangle of wires. And to be honest, I saw many poles with even more wires on them.
Now that's wired
It is very hot in Thailand, pretty much all year long, but certainly in June. And so, one must be sure to be drinking lots of water. Our hotel in Bangkok didn't want us to forget this important lesson. Though perhaps rather than water, they have another method of keeping us healthy.
It's the power of positivity
Yes, I had fun with this. You don't know how many times I told Alrica, “Wow, you look so undesiccated!” or “You are undoubtedly juicy today.”

We visited a grocery store in Chiang Mai. It was surprisingly western in so many ways. But I did notice that their attempt to be like the West sometimes confuses a few things.
Maybe it is a taste of the former Papal States
When did Italia become a state?

We also saw a McDonalds at the airport in Bangkok. And it had its differences as well. Carver noticed that their Trademark symbol is below the line rather than above the line.
Don't steal that name!
You know how we can get apple pies? And sometimes pumpkin pies? Well, here your choices are pineapple pies and corn pies.
Easy as...
And finally, when you put this guy out front, does that really drum up business or scare people away?
Maybe in addition to pineapple pies and corn pies, he is thinking of add "meat pies"
There is something about the look on his face. Carver says he is thinking, “Oh, yes, you'll make a lovely human McNugget.”

I'm sure to the Thai, this is a welcoming pose, and the Ronald McDonalds back home probably creep them out.

It's just a matter of which normal is your normal.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Or Not – Erich

I have shown in this blog that I am willing to steal, adapt, and paraphrase the great lines and titles of famous authors, and I'm sure that rarely do I improve upon the original. But I would just like to say that this time I resisted that urge. I had considered robbing John Steinbeck today and titling this post “Of Mice and Men,” but as you can see, I did not. Go me!

We are in Chiang Mai, Thailand. That is as had been planned. But we are not in the situation which we had expected. We came here because we were supposed to house sit/dog sit/goat sit/chicken sit for a family that is traveling. As I'm sure you can guess, those plans are now not going to happen. Why? It's a funny story.

You know how people say you should trust your gut? Well, sometimes you totally should. When we first arranged the house sit, we were a continent away, in Istanbul, Turkey. But we used Skype to connect with the family. And they seemed to like us and we seemed fine with the situation. What's more, they asked us to show up a couple of days ahead so we could “stay with them” and learn what needed to be learned. Remember, they invited us.

But just a couple days after that, new facts began to emerge. We were told over email that the water bill was generally x baht (that is the Thai currency) per month and we would, of course, have to cover that. And electricity was y baht per month. Okay, so now we have to pay that. That was our first clue that something was different about these people. But the amounts were certainly far less than getting an apartment would be, so we figured fine.

We were also told that they have a maid, a woman who lives down the street, come in for four hours each day to clean. And it only costs z baht each time. Of course, we didn't have to have her come daily, we could do less often, or even not at all. Though the impression left upon us was that there was some expectation of using her services. Well, we agreed to discuss that when we were in Chiang Mai.

Fast forward to yesterday when we arrived in Chiang Mai. Note: No one comes to meet us at the airport. We are given a Google Maps link and told to take a taxi from the airport. You can't find anything by address around here, and of course, we can only read addresses in Latin letters, while the Thai read things in their own alphabet. But we manage to make this work and we get there.

Now, they don't live close to the city at all. And there doesn't seem to be a lot in terms of shops nearby that we can see. They have said before that we probably have to rent a motorbike, and it is beginning to appear that we do.

But soon after we arrive, some strange conversations begin. Conversations that make you go hmm. (Now I'm stealing from C+C Music Factory, but Steinbeck is still safe.) I'll add two new characters who we will call Host Man and Host Woman and give you a few scenes.

Host Man: That's the hand soap.
Erich: Okay.
Host Man: And I have allergies, so I can't use just any other hand soap. So whatever hand soap you use, you're going to need to replenish it before we get back.

Host Woman: Would you like to take a shower?
Alrica: Maybe in the morning.
Host Woman: Do you need anything?
Alrica: Just towels.
Host Woman: Towels? We don't have extra towels.

Host Man: Oh, are you going to have the maid come?
Erich: I'll have to talk to Alrica about that.
Host Man: If you don't have her come, then you have to find a certain neighbor to pay the water bill. If you do have her come, you can just pay her.
Erich: How will I know what the water bill says?
Host Man: Well, the maid will bring it to you. And so you will know it is the water bill.

Host Woman: Did you bring your own dish detergent?
Alrica: No. You can't bring liquids on a plane.
Host Woman: Oh! Well, you will have to replace any dish detergent you use.

Host Man: Since it is the rainy season, the grass grows fast. In another week or two, it will be half a meter high.
Erich: Wow.
Host Man: But you can hire the gardener to take care of it. It costs w baht.
Erich: I'm hiring the gardener?
Host Man: Yes. You just call him on the phone and he will come.
Erich: But I don't speak Thai.
Host Man: Neither does he. He speaks a local regional language.
Erich: Right, but he doesn't speak English. How am I possibly going to call him and tell him to come?
Host Man: Oh yes. I guess I will call him and tell him that you will be calling.

Host Woman: We will leave you one roll of toilet paper. And then you have to buy your own!

So a couple hours in and Alrica and I both have this feeling of dread in the pits of our stomachs. (I shouldn't speak for her. She may have had her head spinning or heart sinking rather than the stomach ailment.) Now, in addition to caring for a dog, a goat, and some chickens, we are caring for a maid, a gardener, the bills (which by the way, to pay the electricity bill, I have to go to the 7-11 because you can do everything at the 7-11, but I don't know how to get to the 7-11), and I better not use any disposable supplies that belong to them or I am expected to replace them.

Dinner time comes. Now, we have no transportation yet and we are in the middle of nowhere. And Host Woman just makes food for her kids. There's no other food for us. After a lot of wrangling Host Man takes Alrica to a restaurant to buy take away food so our kids can eat. And they feel as though they are doing us a favor.

Also, when they invited us, they had told us that while we were sharing the home, there would be two bedrooms for us. But now, their eldest daughter has decided that she doesn't want us in her room. So there is only one bedroom with only one bed (though it is big enough for both Alrica and I.) But they have these purple mats that their kids like to sleep on (meaning they won't even be sleeping in the eldest daughter's bedroom,) and I am expected to drag those to the bedroom so my kids can sleep there. At least, this is what Host Man tells me.

But when I do, Host Woman comes and tells me, no, the mats are for her kids. Apparently it is too much to ask them to sleep in the king size bed in the eldest daughter's room. They prefer the purple mats. So of course I ask, “Where are my kids supposed to sleep?” Apparently, they are supposed to sleep on the same mats with their kids. So I drag the mats back up the stairs.

But my kids aren't comfortable with this. They hardly know these kids, and the size of the mats means they will all be sleeping on top of each other. (And it's hot! The only room with Air Conditioning is the Master Bedroom. The rest of the house just has oscillating fans.) So now I am dragging the mats back down to the bedroom in which I am staying so that my kids can sleep somewhere.

So remember, they invited us. But they don't have food in the house we can eat. They don't have towels we can use. And they don't even have enough sleep space for everyone. (That's not true, they have plenty of sleeping space, but their own kids are allowed to declare their own rooms off limits and still not use those rooms themselves.)

At this point, my whole family is pretty disillusioned. We are in the middle of nowhere, and everything sounds as though it is far. We will have to rent a motorbike, that's fine, but we don't have one yet. Our hosts are nickle and dime-ing us and jerking us around. And the expectations have grown in a way that I feel is pretty much a bait and switch tactic perpetrated by some of the absolute cheapest people we have met in this journey.

But we made a commitment. We can't back out now, because how will they find someone to take care of their dog and their goat and their chickens (and their maid and their gardener and their bills?)

The next morning, Host Man asks to speak with us. He and Host Woman have decided they aren't comfortable with us. They don't want us staying in their house. In fact, they have to get going in about an hour to get their daughter to some activity, and they would like us to be in a taxi by then. (To give a little bit of credit, Host Man did pay for the taxi.)

Apparently, they did not feel as though the fact that they had made a commitment meant they had to follow through on it. Alrica then feverishly began searching the internet for somewhere to stay while I packed us up. And to allay suspense, right now I am comfortably ensconced in a hotel room. We have a reservation for three nights and we will have to figure out what happens after that.

But I have to admit this. I have never been so happy to be kicked out of anything before. Yes, it will cost me more money to stay in an apartment in Chiang Mai, but Thailand is generally inexpensive. And it will be totally worth it. Call it the price of my freedom!

Don't get too upset or worried for us. Remember a wise man once said, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

And that, my friends, was stolen from John Steinbeck.

But I told you who said it, so I'm on the high moral ground, right? Or not.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Thai Beginnings – Erich

We are now in Thailand and are staying her for an uncharacteristically long stretch. We will be spending six weeks in Chiang Mai. But before heading up to that northern city of Thailand, we spent three days in the capital, Bangkok.

We will return to Bangkok in December and spend our New Year there, but this time around, we weren't in it for too long. Still, we enjoyed what we did get to see and to eat.

Bangkok is a beautiful and large city with a meandering wide river running through its heart. Boats continually ply the river. There are tow boats pulling huge barges. There are very traditional looking Thai boats, but at night, string lights illuminate them. There are the tourist cruise boats with meals and dancing. And there are many more. The city loves its river and uses its river.

Along any large street you find vendors selling all kinds of different foods. There are fish being fried on the cart, vegetables being grilled, and smells tumbling from every corner. In addition, there are Buddhist temples throughout the city. Tourists are allowed to visit these, but you must wear pants or skirts, no shorts. And when you walk up the steps to the temple, you must remove your shoes.

In the yards of many buildings, both homes and businesses, you find spirit houses. These are small but intricately carved and decorated houses, similar in size to our dollhouses. But these are more open, often with a figure inside holding a sword. I believe it is a goddess originally from Hinduism.
Spirit House
The spirit houses have a purpose. When you build on land, you are displacing the homes of the spirits who already live there. So you create a new home for them. What's more, you take care of them. Frequently one sees small dishes of food left at a spirit home, or a can of Coke opened up with a straw in it. If you take care of the spirits, then the spirits will help to care for you, your land, and your property.

Of course, we did not fail to eat! And there are so many delicious Thai foods that we are glad we have longer to be here. We haven't been able to try them all.

There was a delicious soup which had a coconut broth with chunks of chicken, pieces of lemongrass, and a root I could not identify in it. It was a touch sour and that made it incredible.

Next, imagine a plate that looks like a pizza with all the melted cheese atop it. But it is not crust underneath. There is a layer of oysters. You would think it would be weird, but it was good.

Salads include green (unripe) mango and green (unripe) papaya as well as bean sprouts, tomatoes, and other things we might normally think of as salad greens. But this is the season of fresh juicy mango. So the ripe ones are part of a dessert. The mango is just peeled and sliced. But then it is combined with sticky rice which is drenched in a sweet coconut sauce.

Now, many Thai dishes are spicy, and when a Thai tells you something is “mie pet” (which means not spicy) it's probably spicy. So when something is “pet” (or spicy) it is beyond what we would call spicy in the States. I hope that after six weeks we will start to get a tiny bit used to it. I enjoy the spice, but boy, I have had some tingling lips and tongue after some meals.

No problem, you can quench it with roselle juice, chrysanthemum juice, or longan juice. None of these was our favorite, but we do love trying new things.

I don't know what will come next in our Thai adventures, but I bet it won't be “mie pet”. Because blandness is not a Thai trait.

Urban Design – Erich

There must be people in every country who believe that their nation is the best one on Earth. It's only natural, right?

Certainly there are many in the United States who will insist that America is the best country of all, including many who have never been to any other country. And I will agree that America is pretty great. But you know what, so are a lot of places.

Japan, as an example, is one. We were in Osaka. And of course, that is only one of many cities in Japan. But some of the things we saw there showed the genius of the Japanese.

Their subway system is so well labeled (in both Japanese and Latin characters) that it would be hard to get lost. In addition to each station having a name, each has a number code. It starts with one letter that tells you which line you are on, and then has a two digit number. The numbers go in order from one station to the next.

There are electronic signs and recorded voices that tell you all the stations, and you can understand them! They aren't garbled. And here's one that will amaze you, not in it's audacity, but in a “how did no one else think of this before” way. You know the straps that strap hangers hang onto? In Japan, they make them at a variety of heights, so if you are too tall for this one, you just step one step down and get a higher one. (Or step the other way if you are too short.)

One more brilliant idea that is one of those, why didn't we think of this: As you are leaving a subway station in Japan, at any exit, there is a compass rose engraved or set in stone in the floor near the exit. So you know which direction is north as you are leaving the station. For those of us for whom north means something, it is a big help in getting your bearings.

In all the subway stations there is a long line of these textured yellow plastic tiles set into the floor. But they are not just in the stations. They run throughout the main districts of the city. You see them in the sidewalks. Different points along the sidewalks have different textures or raised patterns on them.

It's called tactile paving and apparently it is found throughout Japan. Know what it's for? It is to help blind people find their way. They can feel the different types of raised bumps with their canes or through the soles of their shoes and it tells them what is at this point.

You see it in a small measure in the U.S., for example, you might see it at the corner. But in Japan it is not limited to the corner. It runs the entire length of the sidewalk.

There is a great deal of traffic in Osaka, but considerably less than there could be. Why? Because of bicycles. Bicycles are immensely popular. You continually see people riding bikes. Mothers take their small children with them shopping on bikes with installed seats for the baby. But that's not the only installed devices.

Many bikes have a clamp attached to the handlebars to hold an umbrella. When it rains, you can still ride your bike and have both hands on the handlebars.

Parking your bike isn't the old kickstand. This kickstand is longer, on both sides of the bike and connected at the bottom. When you park your Japanese bike, the back wheel is lifted off the ground. Back to subway stations, some of them even have underground bicycle parking lots.

And finally, here's a mystery for you. In Osaka, we rarely saw garbage cans along the street. But we even more rarely saw garbage. They just don't litter, or if they do, there must be some amazing system of cleaning it up that I never saw.

Japan sure has a lot going in the right direction. I'm not sure if they believe that their country is the best in the world, but I can see why they might make that argument.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Travel Days: Istanbul, Turkey to Bistritsa, Bulgaria – Alrica

None of us really enjoy travel days. Most of them are just the usual pack everything up, get to the airport, wait, fly to wherever we are going, find the place that we are staying, and start getting settled in. There is a lot of stress involved in relying on others and ourselves to navigate a, sometimes complicated, world transportation system. Today’s travel day was far from usual.

Following our rather expensive few months in Europe, we were looking to go somewhere and make up the difference in our budget. The plan was to head to Southeast Asia after a short visit to Japan. Flights to Japan ran nearly a thousand dollars out of Istanbul and flew through Ukraine, which has a bad reputation. However, a short $20 train ride away in Sofia, Bulgaria and the prices dropped to $400 each. Winner! According to the Internet, the train ride would be an easy overnight train with sleeper cars. We would board in Istanbul, fall asleep, and wake up in Sofia. The internet isn’t always right.

As the time of leaving Istanbul came closer, I did further research into our train travels and learned about the Marmaray project. Apparently, Turkish trains run on a narrower gauge rail system than the rest of Europe. In an effort to be more European (partially in their bid to join the EU) and to connect the train systems more smoothly, Turkey is rebuilding their train lines from the Bulgarian border, through Istanbul, and ending in Ankara.  With train lines out of commission, they had to have a workaround.

Our airbnb host happily allowed us a late checkout so we spent our day relaxing, packing, and cleaning the apartment before heading out around 6 PM. We took the city bus to Eminönü and walked over to Cirkeci train station. We bought corn on the cob from a street vender and sat in a park and enjoyed our last look at the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara. I even enjoyed a last cup of Turkish tea served by a man who came around with a tray of glasses and hot tea. Then we walked around the old city looking for dinner and a way to spend our last 60 Turkish Lira. We found a great place serving Tavuk Döner Yarim (chicken sandwiches) for dinner and bought a few things to eat on the train for breakfast. Then we headed back to the train station to wait.

While we waited, we met some of our fellow travelers and compared expectations. We also overcame our American values and paid a lira each to use the bathroom. The woman’s room had both a squat toilet and a western toilet and was clean and had toilet paper. The kids entertained themselves trying to pet the many cats that are consistently around everywhere in Istanbul. Around 9:30, a bus pulled up outside the waiting lounge that would serve as the first part of our trip.

The bus was perfectly nice. It left right on time at 10 PM and headed for the border. We left through a part of Istanbul that we hadn’t seen before so we all enjoyed seeing new things including a 5M Migros grocery store (The Migros chain labels its stores with the number of M’s based on the size of the grocery store. An average store might be a MMMigros while a corner market is only a Migros, so a MMMMMigros must be huge!!). We also solved our question of why there are wires strung between minarets at many mosques. Seeing them on the last night before Ramadan, one ran lighted words welcoming people to the mosque on Ramadan.

After the city lights died away, we all settled in to try to sleep. My bruised knees from a minor bus accident that Carver and I had been involved in a couple days earlier made the cramped space particularly hard to sleep in but I dozed a bit. At an hour into the trip, the bus pulled into a service station for a bathroom/snack break. We had 20 minutes to stretch our legs and buy drinks with our remaining lira and there was even a small playground to play on. After reboarding the bus, the lights were turned out and we headed on our way.

Around 1:15 AM, we started seeing signs of the Bulgarian border. The miles leading up to it were lined with semi-trucks parked and waiting on the side of the highway. Must have been hundreds of them. Our bus took us to the train station and unloaded us into a waiting room with rows of seats where it left us with no information. The eurail app that some of the other travelers used said that the train would be arriving at 2 AM and leaving the station at 4 AM. Around 1:45, a train pulled in and unloaded passengers who went through passport control. When they were done, we were led into that same room to get stamped out of Turkey. Then we had our luggage xrayed and were left outside and told to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the same official told us to hurry up and led us to the train where we got to take seats and wait some more. As we were the start of the line, we had our pick of seats. They were basic but reasonably comfortable.

At 4 AM, the train finally pulled out of the station and began our trip across Bulgaria. The conductor came through and collected all of our passports and checked our tickets. Turning over passports was uncomfortable but it seemed to be the thing to do. At this point, the kids and I went to sleep while Erich stayed up worrying about our passports. I only know for sure that I fell asleep because around 5:30, the conductor woke me up flashing money at me and repeating some question in Bulgarian. I’m not fast to wake up and so it took me about 5 minutes of groggy back and forth to figure out that he wasn’t asking me to pay something, he was asking me for change for 10 euros. Not a pleasant thing to wake up to and so I cut him off and went back to sleep.

Around 7 AM, the sun rose and so did I. The flipside to so little sleep is being awake to see the beautiful countryside as it passed my window and the sunrise. Arriving into Sofia Central Station around 10:45, we found our subway station and made our way to the Royal Thai Consulate. Since an upcoming destination will be a 50 day stay in Thailand, we need more than the standard 30 day visa that you get on arrival. The plan was to visit the Thai Consulate in Bulgaria to get 60 day Visas. Carver had studied the maps well and got us to the Thai Consulate with little trouble. However, once there, we were told that we couldn’t get a visa there unless we were Bulgarian residents. This is not what the Thai govt says, but there was no point in arguing. We hit the road again, picked up some amazing pizza for lunch, and made our way to the bus station where we would catch a bus to Bistritsa.

Getting subway tickets had been easy; getting bus tickets was a challenge. Everything was printed in Cyrillic so we couldn’t read anything, and nobody spoke English. We got lucky though, found bus tickets, and waited a short while for our bus.

The bus that arrived was probably the dirtiest, most poorly kept bus we have ridden, which is saying a lot given some of the countries we have ridden in. However it got us from point A to point B. We afterwards learned that the Bulgarian Government chose to implement austerity measures following the fall of the Soviet Union in order to fix their economy. Though part of the EU now, they have chosen to retain their own currency and have one of the lowest costs of living. The people we met seem happy though and we were pleased with how safe things seemed. And Bulgaria has the second lowest debt to GDP ratio in the EU so if dirty buses are the worst of it, I can live with that.

45 minutes later, we arrived at the bus stop near our house. The mountains surrounding us were amazing and made us look forward to many happy hikes. A walk down a long dirty road led us to the house that we were renting for the week. Our host’s friend arrived a short while later to let us in and show us around. He didn’t speak English but had German as his second language so I got a bit more practice with my German and we managed to communicate. He then left us to our own devices and we picked bedrooms and settled in for the evening and for an early bedtime. We managed to put together a dinner with what little was in our packs and crashed for the night, glad to be in a new home and settled for a while at least.

Eat Like the Japanese – Erich

Alrica asked me, “If you were a visitor to the United States, what would be that one American food that you had to try?”

I'll be honest. I was hard pressed to come up with one answer. In New York, you would have to try NY style pizza. Whereas in Chicago, it's the deep dish, baby. In Memphis or Kansas City or a variety of other places, there is barbecue. And the list goes on. I couldn't name the one quintessentially American food.

Well, I have a similar problem with Japan. There are so many amazing and authentically Japanese foods. So, the only thing to do is to try a bunch of them, right?

I've mentioned sushi in a previous post, my Public Sushi Announcement. Of course, we all associate that with Japan. And it is delicious too. There are so many varieties, cooked, raw, with fish, with shrimp, with other meats, with no meat, wrapped or unwrapped, and so on. You can have sushi day after day and probably not have the same roll twice.

We enjoyed noodle soup, which also comes in many varieties. The broth is either vegetable or chicken, but you can have different elements added. You may have a meat of some sort, you will get plenty of vegetables. Some are similar to vegetables we have in the States, onions or mushrooms. But some of the greens are the kind that we don't grow in the U.S. Still tastes great. And of course, noodles! Need I say more? (Though for we chopsticks novices, the noodles can be a bit hard to keep hold of.)

A beef bowl is probably what you think it is, but not if you think the bowl itself is made of beef. But it is a bowl of rice with toppings. Of course, one of these toppings is beef. But you might have a sauce like a curry or more sweet and sour. And you will get vegetables. And maybe even a mostly raw egg, cause, baby, that's how they roll around here!

But every once in a while, you want something deep fat fried, right? Well, have no fear, because Japan has tempura. They take shrimp and fish and other things and give them a flavored batter and drop them in the fryer. We had shrimp, cod, sand borer (which is another kind of fish), a vegetable that I am not sure I know what it is, and pumpkin! The pumpkin was cut into a big letter C shape and it was very sweet and delicious.

The good news is that more and more you can get pretty much any food in America. So you don't all have to rush to Japan to enjoy it. Maybe the answer to Alrica's question about what one food is the must have American food is this: Japanese food.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Land of the Rising Fun – Erich

Japan started out stressful, but once we got past that, it has become an incredibly enjoyable (though expensive) place to be. We have been in many countries now, and all of them were in many ways foreign to our American ways of doing things. But Japan is thoroughly foreign, more so than many other places we have been.

Part of that is the lack of Latin letters, or even an alphabet that is similar to ours like Cyrillic or Greek. But that's not all of it. Japan just has a lot of differences in culture, foods, and society. I'd love to show you some of them, perhaps mundane in some cases, but all interesting.

Let's start at the grocery store. First, there are totally foreign foods to us. Sometimes we can figure out what they are, like these long white mushrooms. (We used them in dinner last night and they were delicious.)
I don't know what that speech balloon says, but I like to imagine it is "I'm a fun guy!"
Other things we have no idea what they are. I call this a melted wax cucumber, though I am not actually confident that inside of it is anything cucumberish. We have not tried this food.
This evolved in nature? Surely not for its aesthetic qualities.
We did try octopus and it turned out to be quite good. Though it is noteworthy that in Japan people seem to be less squeamish about their food looking like it did when it was alive.
You can still see part of the head, sucker!
Though we did try various greens that we don't have at home, I don't know what they are called, but they are good.

The way they package things is unusual to our way of doing things as well. For example, here you can package your own sliced salmon with the skin still on it.
Salmon, on the rocks
But your carrots are prepackaged individually. Each carrot is in its own plastic bag.
Now in the convenient wabbit size package
But even in a foreign far off land, there are tastes of other places. Note the American cherries. (They might actually be grown in the U.S.A. That seems likely.)
A stellar representative of our nation
But less likely is that this Italian Lime Fanta has anything to do with Italy. We certainly never saw it there.
After all, if it were Mongolian Lime, it wouldn't have the indefinable air to it, right?
Other shops are also very antithetical to our experience. For example this tiny, narrow store sells two kinds of products: men's shoes and cigarettes. What's the connection? I have no idea!
Maybe the idea is that you smoke while trying on the shoes
But if you want cigarettes and the men's shoe store is closed, don't worry. Osaka is filled with outdoor vending machines. They are everywhere. Including some that sell alcohol and others that sell cigarettes. (Perhaps there are no age limits here? If so, I'm not sure how they would be enforced.)
No, these aren't hard to find
Retail outlets and restaurants naturally need to get your attention to sell their wares. So what could be better than signs? Big signs? Signs in all kinds of shapes sticking in and out of your building?
This one has moving legs

I love how he goes through the building

I have no idea what the hand and brush store sells
That's not all you might find sticking out of a building. How about a rock climbing wall on the outside of your building and several stories above the ground?
For the high adventure lifestyle
The foods available at some of these restaurants are, as one might expect, not your standard American fare. Though sometimes it seems a bit too out there. I'm not sure what Horse Sashimi is, but I certainly hope it isn't what I think it is.
All opposed to horse sashimi, say neigh.
Even at a familiar restaurant like Burger King, you might see some more Japanese menu choices.
There was also an avocado burger
Like any big city, Osaka has the need to control water flow. They have storm drains, canals, and manholes. The canals move with a surprisingly swift current, and inside some of them you find turtles.
Soaking up the sun
As for the manhole covers, they are their own form of public art. Most of them have something interesting on them, and some are painted.
Sewer entrance decorated with a castle

Or honoring the fire department

Or maybe a pretty flower or two.
Finally, let me end with the Japanese love of costumes. We saw a Cosplay Cafe at one shopping center. We have seen several people, mostly women, dressed as anime characters. Generally, we don't recognize the specific character though. But perhaps best was while we were visiting Osaka Castle, we saw a castle man!
A castle on your head? Think he falls down a lot?
You gotta love Japan. The Far East is far out!

Monday, June 20, 2016

PSA, a Public Sushi Announcement – Erich

If you are considering a trip to Japan, I have no doubt that many people will advise you to try sushi while you are here. Of course, you can eat sushi in most any country these days, but still there is nothing like eating it in its native home. So advising you to try sushi is very good advice.

But I am going to do that advice one better. I am going to give you step by step directions and let you learn from my successes and mistakes.

You want to go to a place called Muten Kura Sushi. There are many locations throughout the cities of Japan, so I hope you can find one convenient for you. Why Muten Kura Sushi? Well, it is excellent food, at excellent prices, and the entire process is fun. Other than a few special dishes, each plate of sushi is 100 Yen, which is just under $1 (at the time of this writing. Don't I sound official?)

Let's assume you don't speak or read Japanese. Well, you might be a bit overwhelmed when you first enter. Have no fear, I am going to walk you through.

You enter and show, more or less by holding up a certain number of fingers, how many people are in your party. Then the hostess gives you a tiny clipboard with a number on it. This is the number of your table. If, instead of a table you prefer to sit at the “bar”, where you all sit facing the same direction, then each of you will get your own clipboard.

You can ask if they have an instruction card for their international guests. Some locations might. Others might not.

You go to the table shown on your clipboard. (There is most likely a map of the store on the clipboard too, but you need not fear. The numbers are identical to the ones you are used to.)
The conveyor belt
At the table you will see a conveyor belt going by with many dishes of different types of sushi. Each one is on a blue plate inside a plastic mechanism that sits on the conveyor. If you want one of the dishes that is moving past, you grab the plate. You do not grab the plastic mechanism. Then you lift slightly and the lid of the plastic mechanism opens. You take the plate and enjoy!

However, this is the sushi that has been going around for some time. You can do one better! You can custom order the sushi you want and it will be made fresh for you!
The touchscreen
Above the conveyor (or conveyors, we will get to that in a moment) there is a touchscreen. On this touchscreen, various dishes that you can order are shown. There are many “pages” and you can flip through the pages using two green buttons at the bottom.
The green buttons for changing pages
Here you can see all of the choices for sushi, beer, specialty drinks, and desserts. You can order any of these. But here is an important note! Learn from my experience. If you don't want a specialty drink or a beer, water is available. But you may not realize it when you first go. There is a dispenser along one of the walls of the store and there are cups nearby. The dispenser probably has a blue spigot. (This is important, because there are also dispensers that will dispense beer, and you will pay for beer. But you can get the water for free.)

Now you are ready to order from the touchscreen. So you press the picture of the item you want. That picture will appear on a screen with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 beside it, as well as two green buttons. First, you choose the number of these dishes that you want. Then you hit the leftmost green button (which is the shorter of the two Japanese words.) If you made a mistake and you want to cancel, you hit the rightmost green button (with the longer of the two Japanese words.)

Soon your custom order will arrive. It will come one of two ways, depending on which location you are visiting.

In some locations, there is only the one conveyor track. In this case, your dish will arrive with the blue plate on top of a large red bowl. Your touchscreen will ring at you just before your dish arrives. You grab it as it passes.
Upper Track with train receding
At other locations, there is a second track, this one above the conveyor. In these locations, a plastic train will slide out to your table and stop there. Your touchscreen will ring. And you take the blue dishes off of the plastic train. There is a green lit button that illuminates when this train arrives. Once you have all of your dishes from the train, you press that green button and the train returns to the kitchen.
The red button for when you are done
When you are done ordering and eating, there is a red button on your touchscreen. You touch this button. A ring happens in the restaurant and a hostess comes to your table.

She counts the number of plates you have and from that knows how much your total is. She inputs this in a handheld device. But you don't pay her.

In some locations, there is a slot for you to deposit your plates. This will also count up the plates. And on the touchscreen, you will see a cartoon of a martial arts battle. Depending on how many plates you enter, your human character either wins a fight or gets defeated by some sort of animal character. Plus, you may get a prize. There is some sort of dispenser that drops a ball like you might find in a gumball machine that gives you little toys.

(It's possible that they only turn on this feature if you are with children. I am unclear on this because I have only visited Muten Kura Sushi with children.)

Now you take your tiny clipboard to the cash register which is located near the main door to the restaurant. The cashier will input the number on the clipboard and your total will appear. You pay, and then you go! Note, you will probably have to pay in cash, as they will most likely not accept credit cards.

The whole process is a lot of fun, plus delectable. That's a win for the stomach and a win for the mind. (And I can only suppose a win for the restaurant as well.)

Thank you for your attention to this Public Sushi Announcement.

Pictures and Maps and Bistritsa(Бистрица), Sofia(София), Bulgaria(България) - Carver

Here in Osaka, Japan, we are living in Tsurumi Ward. The nearest subway station is Kadomaminami. Or Tsurumiyokuchi. I'm not sure but every single time we go (which we have done once going into the heart of the city and once coming back to the Tsurumi Ward) we have used Kadomaminami. You may think this name is long but pay attention to the name of the subway line that ends at Kadomaminami (and is the only one that goes there.) It is the Nagahoritsurumiryokuchi Line. Different maps put dashes in different places in the name. The one with no dashes is what Google Maps says. Similarly, Kadomaminami in Google Maps is Kadoma-Minami but the maps in the subways say Kadomaminami. I have not, however, memorized the name Nagahoritsurumiryokuchi and I refer to it as The Long Name Line. But I intend to memorize the name of it. I memorize ridiculous things. In Cape Town, I memorized the names of all of the stops on the Southern Suburbs Line. I have forgotten much of them now although I could probably name all the stations up to Wittebome (2 stops down from Kenilworth, the stop we got off at.) Anyway, I might be getting a little off topic.

We went to the Thai Consulate on Friday to get a 60-day visa for Thailand. I thought ¥280 (which is about $2.80) would let you go as far as you wanted on any train line with any amount of transfers on the Municipal Subway and the New Tram Line as long as you don't leave a station. The New Tram Line is owned by the city as well as the Osaka Municipal Subway. Nagahoritsurumiryokuchi Line is part of the Osaka Municipal Subway. But no, at the ticket machines there was a map that showed every station, every line and the cost to get there from the station you were at. I looked at the cost to go to Morinomiya, the stop where we get off and get onto the Chuo Line (another line in the Osaka Municipal Subway) to go to Sakaisujihommachi Station near the Thai Consulate. But I didn't look at how much it would cost to go there. I only looked at the price to get to the transfer station. I realized this on the train to Morinomiya. You have to put your ticket in a machine at the start and end of your journey. If you don't put it in at the end, it will not let you out. I was worried that it wouldn't let us out because we had only paid enough to go to Morinomiya. However, there are machines to add more to your card for people stuck like that. However, what if it was broken? Later, on this same train, we realized that we had forgotten our passports so my Dad went home to get them and we would go to the consulate and do as much as we could without the passports. But he had all the money. He got off at Osaka Business Park to go on the train going the other way. This was one stop before Morinomiya. After the train left Osaka Business Park, we realized that. So I was super worried.
(Seven minute break to build up the suspense for anyone who thinks this is funny. If you don't care, you can just keep reading. (This is modeled off of the movies in Turkey where they take a seven minute break.))
We arrived at Sakaisujihommachi Station and it turns out that ¥280 is enough. Yay! But we still didn't have passports. But it turns out that even with passports we don't have enough of the stuff we need to apply for the visa. But then we explored Osaka. We went to a row of shopping like a souk in Turkey or Morocco. We spent much of the day there. We got tea flavored frozen yogurt which I disliked. And we have many pictures.
The row of shopping which we call Osouka (get it?)
This chef is mad that we ate Seven-Eleven corn dogs

If you want even colder beer, get a beer slushie

Not a Ferris Wheel, but a Ferris Oval
Packs of one carrot each
Someone put the McDonalds logo backwards

The street light is a man

Another human street light
Step One: Go Shopping

Step Two: Go to a Website

Step Three: Become a Zombie!
Yes, don't follow those three steps. The other thing I realized is that I never did a post in Bulgaria. It was a full house. And our closest bus stop was Cheshmata (Чешмата) which was up a road from our house. We were somewhat far from Sofia and even about a thirty minute walk from Bistritsa, the nearest city. Bistritsa also had the nearest grocery store. We could get bus 69, 70, or 98 although we never took the 69 or 70. One day we walked over a mountain (a small mountain) to get to a hot springs. Then we took a taxi home because the walk was longer than we had expected. But what I really loved was having a full house. I ran down the hall bouncing the little yellow ball all the time. There was no one under us. And there was outside. Unlike Lagonisi, the grass was not grass. It was whatever happened to grow. So there wasn't much to go to but we could just relax at home.

Anyway my three favorite places are Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria. And I liked them for different things. I don't know if Japan will be one of my favorites.