Monday, December 8, 2014

Overdue Books

Wow! I haven't done this is some months. As a result, it's possible I've left off some of the reading I've done since the last "report". Heck, I read some of these while waiting for the rain to let up in Kathmandu! Anyway, forward the list:
  • I Got A Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock - This is a sad, short book, mainly because it covers the sadly short life of Jim Croce. There is some wooden dialogue in his wife's memoir, but there is gut-level honesty, too--I think she tried to present a loving but unflinching portrait of the man and his music. I have loved Jim Croce's music, his stories, since about age twelve, when they first got played on the radio. Happily, his music continues to be heard, even if his voice is silent. I remember being moved (this would have been around 1995) when I noticed one of my brightest students, great kid (Bo H for those in the know) had scrawled the lyrics to "Time in a Bottle" on the back of a notebook page--it was clear he had been up late listening, and just had to get those words written out. Twenty-odd years later. Now, it's forty-odd years later, and I feel sure Jim Croce's music is still touching people.
  • The Great Bridge: The Inside Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough - It felt like it took as long to read this book as it took to build the bridge. But I'm confident that I can stack my knowledge of the subject now against anyone--at least, anyone who didn't read the appendix, too. This is a follow-up, thanks to The Stumbler, to McCullough's fine book about the Panama Canal. Curiously, McCullough is not of an engineering turn of mind, but perhaps that is what allows him to write so clearly on topics like this. Plus, it's an engrossing story, not just the mechanics of it, but the politics, the zeitgeist, the personal hardships and drama of the Roebling family, etc. Not, however, for the fainthearted.
  • The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury - I don't read reviews before I've read the book or seen the movie--too many reviewers (over at www.goodreads.com) miss the point, or I do. The allegory of 100 year old Alan Karlson seems to split them right down the middle. Yes, I suppose it could be called 'the 100 year old man who drank a lot of vodka and went on a killing spree'. Yes, it is a bit too obvious for irony that a man who hates politics meets most of the key political figures of the twentieth century. No, I don't really know if it is a bona fide #1 international bestseller. But comparing it to Forrest Gump! You go too far, sir! This was an excellent book that does not talk down to the reader or the characters, even though it is written in straightforward, clear prose (at least in translation). It embraces coincidence, but not luck, and does not demean intelligence--though it does at times demean the intelligensia. Anyway, read it. It's on Kindle.
  • Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Testsuko Kuroyanagi, translated by Dorothy Britton - In Japan, to be "at the window" is an idiom for failure--you hardly ever get fired in traditional Japanese companies, you just get moved to a desk at the window ledge and frozen out. The author uses this term in this metaphorical way, and also literally, to describe her school experience as a young girl, where she often spent time at the window, chatting with passers-by during classtime. The book is her memoir of her elementary education after she was asked to leave that school and was enrolled at a delightfully modern school housed in some old railroad cars, run by a truly amazing headmaster. This is a book every educator should read, and read again, not just because of the ideals of the school process itself, but because it reminds us of the potential inside each of our charges--that little girl grew up to become one of Japan's most beloved TV broadcasters.
  • Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell. and Know by Alexandra Horowitz - After I read Marley & Me, I snatched up this book at Narita to read on a flight. While I can't say that everything in the book is entirely scientifically validated, it does convince me that we humans totally misunderstand a lot of is happening with our furry friends--but also that we do have a virtually unique emotional link with our dogs.
  • Spycraft by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, Henry R. Schlesinger - This is a lengthy, detailed treatment of the history of the CIA with respect to craft--that is, the codes,miniature cameras, secret compartments, kill pills, listening stations, "drops" and the like, devised by the engineers behind the scenes. There is plenty of discussion of the role of the the technology side in operations, but not much in the way of new secrets revealed about big successes or failures, because the authors are career CIA guys who had to have the book vetted. Still, good stuff.
  • The Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton - I read some Father Brown mysteries when I was young, but I don't remember them being this subtle, or Father Brown such a surprising non-entity. If you want a thoroughbred detective like Sherlock Holmes or action guy like Jack Reacher or Mitch Rapp (see next entry), the Padre is not for you. But if you like a well-crafted little cuckoo-clock story, give him a try. PS, he seems related to the Father Brown in the Tom Bosley CBS series by name only.
  • Kill Shot by Vince Flynn - Mitch Rapp is a lone CIA assassin working his way through a terrorist hit list when his handlers back home get nervous. He's gone of the page, struck out on his own. Or has he? They try to call him in from the cold, but he won't pick up the phone until he figures out who at the Agency is trying to take him down. Pretty hackneyed stuff, but a diverting read with that satisfying good-guy-kills-everyone-that-deserves-it ending.
  • Naive. Super by Erlend Loe, translated by Tor Ketil Solberg - Young guy drops out of college, confused and overwhelmed, and moves into his brother's apartment while the brother is out of town on business. He splits his time between ruminating on the nature of the universe while reading a cosmology tome, and obsessively playing with children's toys (a bit like little Oskar in The Tin Drum). They went crazy for this book in the author's native Norway, but I was just mildly intrigued.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tuttle Update

Not as lot going on, but just a few random pics to liven things up.
1) I went to the trivia contest at Shenanigan's, a nice spot in Itaewon. This is actually my third go at the trivia there, but it's worth blogging because I came in third place. Playing on a team by myself. Full disclosure: I tied for third but won the "drink-off" to take the honors. The prize? A pitcher of Red Rock. Now this was at nearly 10:30, so the last thing I needed on a weeknight was more beer. So I spread my good fortune around. Here's a shot of the lovely barmaids toasting my success (Fuller disclosure: they helped me with a couple of the items):

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2) Then on Wednesday night I got together with heron and The Stumbler for dinner at Guro Digital, which is a hoppin' "eating street" area. This clown thought I look like the KFC grandfather (boy, if I had 50 won ...):

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But here is what we came to Guro for, some lovely sirloin on the table grill.

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3) In other news, I have booked my winter vacation, departing Incheon on Boxing Day, eight nights in Hanoi and surrounding. I literally just now completed the process for a three day, two night boat trip to Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island and Monkey Island.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How's the Weather?

Yesterday I posted a pic of a rainbow; today I'm back with another weather shot, not because my third graders just finished a chapter on the weather (although they did), but because it so well exemplifies the Seoul situation.

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When I took yesterday's weather photo, I was wearing a lightweight sweater and my lightest jacket--a windbreaker. The temperature was in the fifties.

This morning, there were snow flurries on my walk to school, and you can see above what it looked like out my office window around 10:00. It has snowed off and on all day, but hasn't stuck yet. The temp. right now is 27 and falling. If I go outside tonight, I'll have on my heaviest jacket (parka), scarf, gloves, etc.

That's how the weather is in Seoul.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Under the Rainbow

So here's a sight i don't think I've ever seen in Seoul before:

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That is all. Move along.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Food and Drink

Sushi and Sashimi Some sashini, aka, raw fish, tastes like raw fish. But some of it tastes like seafood butter, like some kind of fleshy salt candy that melts in the mouth. I wouldn't describe myself as an expert, but I do know that some of the world's best is to be found in Tokyo. So it is only to be expected that within a few hours of checking in at my hotel, and making my way to the Ginza, I had been advised to find the nearest Zanmai Sushi restaurant, one of the city's most popular chains, and had done so.

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After wandering in and out of a few of the district's watering holes, I made my way back to Oak Hotel, stopping off a block away at the last place that was still open in this quiet neighborhood. The only thing on the menu seemed to be sushi, so I double-dipped:

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I can't say this hole-in-the-wall joint was better than the famed Zanmai, but I won't say it was worse, either.
The sthird night, I was up for more sashimi, and had been hearing about the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Tokyo version of Noryangjin, I imagined. However, it was raining outside the comfy little "standing bar" I was in, so I decided to put it off. From my journal: "Later ... Change of plans. The rain turned into a sprinkle so I went to Tsukiji after all. Despite the fact it was not yet eight o'clock, I only found two sashimi restaurants open--one of them simply because it's a 24 hour place. Still, the price was right and the fish was excellent, so I'm not complaining." Except about the fact this supposed high-point was as lively as a Methodist Ladies' Wednesday night prayer meeting at the North Pole.

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My last full day on the trip, the weather was finally quite nice, so i tooled around the Ueno Market area, looking for cheap eats--well, Tokyo being Tokyo, cheaper eats. Common in Tokyo--and Seoul and indeed throughout Asia--are plastic models of the food, to show you exactly what you're getting. Sometimes they are so realistic, I wonder how they'd taste ... nah.

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I found just the place I was looking for up a side alley. Again, from my journal: "After quite a bit of wandering, I'm sitting sidewalk-style at one of the hundred little sushi restaurants, having eaten some maguro and some toro (red and fatty tuna, respectively) along with a tomato salad that consisted of a well-chilled tomato and a dollop of mayo on the side. A really pleasant combination. ... The weather has been a bit of an issue, but unlike in Kathmandu, Tokyo has drains, so you're not treading in septic water, dodging vehicles made even more dangerous by poor traction. I am getting a passer-by to take my picture as I am typing this. Done! And not too bad, all things considered. The couple next to me commented, as so many Asians do, "Handsome!" But that's just for looking Western."

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I decided to stick with Ueno for the afternoon and have quite a few drinks, which I hadn't really done up to this point. I crawled various places, imbibing a beer or two, and having the requisite snack--the cheapest thing on the menu is always edamame, or soy beans. Here's my second stop, kind of a sports bar, or at least a place where they were all intently watching a tennis match. Nest is a shot from my third stop, with a beer and Ikkoman shochu (aka soju) from Kagoshima prefecture, 'made from high quality potato malt', "which frankly doesn't taste all that much like the soju I'm used to. It does pack a punch, though, so it's supporting my objective."

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Takashimaya is one of the huge department stores in Nihombashi with three or four floors of groceries and restaurants where you can have a nice meal for a less outrageous price--just choose one of the "set meals". I had a beef stew set which came with really lovely dumplings, which themselves came with an instruction card--mix the soy and vinegar in the bowl, and let the dumpling cool a bit before shoving it in your pie-hole.

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Ginza Lion is a German-style beer hall built in 1923 by Sapporo. The ambiance is Tokyo unique, the service is great, and not only do they care about their beer, they care about its presentation. That means firstly, giving it an adequate head, and secondly, serving it well-chilled. But I also like how each of the beers comes in the correct glass--no Cass in a Max mug here! And they serve nine different formulas, ten if you count the non-alcoholic, which I don't. Here I am drinking the 1.3 liter German-style (1,728Y):

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They also serve outstanding food here, but you won't find sushi on the menu--well, maybe a bit. Pretzels, sausages, rosti (hash browns) are the lighter fare. For a full meal, I had the 8 oz. wagyu sirloin, perfectly prepared, for 3,758Y. Later, I had some awesome ribs with a potato and mushroom gratin.

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But not all my time was in Ginza. I also visited Shibuya, famous for its busy crossing and its neon lights. It's just fine, but for a Seoulite, it's nothing special. I did, however, have a wonderful revelation, that of the "bronze" beer vessel. I failed to note the name of the bar this was in, but it was a tiny, subterranean place, and they charged a 50% premium for it--still, when I open Smokin' Steve's Bar & Grill, it's bronze beer vessels all the way!

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I paid a visit, too, to Roppongi, the "gaijin district", which I rather enjoyed on my 2012 trip. Within five minutes out of the station, five African men approached me sequentially with a come-on to their bar: pretty girls getting naked, two beers for 4,000 Y (that's forty bucks, btw!), or just a beer if you want. Five minutes after that, I am ensconced in a place called Pizzeria and Bar Certo, with a Moretti and some cheese served with honey (I never had that before, but I'll definitely have it again). Finished the evening at The Hub, a British style pub with its own brew. Cool, quiet place, about one minute from the subway. Both my choices, I'm sure, to put to shame the loud, crass, smokey joints the touts were offering.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Tourist Doings

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The Tokyo SkyTree is the city's tallest structure, and also its highest observation deck, with one deck at 350 m and another at 450 m.

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I visited on my last full day in Tokyo, the first day also on which the sky was clear--it rained off and on the rest of the trip, but never enough to really get soaked. The cost to go all the way up was about USD32, plus $10 more for the professional photo, which was as disappointing as the one seen below--it looks like i am standing on the edge of the glass floor, while I am in fact smack dab in the middle of it. Anyway, the views were awesome.

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The photo at top of the SkyTree in the distance was taken from the middle of the river during my riverboat tour. If I remember, this cost about 1,500 Y ($15) and lasted around 50 minutes. The boat leaves from Nihombashi, the bridge at Japan's zero mile marker, and for about 15 minutes or so, all you see is the underside of bridges. For the rest of the tour, you see bridges and buildings, and the occasional waterbird.

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After the boat tour, I finally made my way to the kite museum, which occupies the fifth floor of this popular restaurant in Nihombashi, and which was founded by the restaurant's owner:

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I wanted to visit ever since I first read about it (rather like my feeling for Seoul's kimchi museum). It cost 200 Y and can occupy as much as fifteen minutes of your time--it's quite tiny and has almost no explanatory material, all of it in Japanese. What it does have is kites. lots of 'em:

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To bwe fair, it has some artwork featuring kites, and a life size model of the owner, making a kite:

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I don't know what draws me to places like this, because I'm not really a kite enthusiast. We did fly kites quite a lot when i was a kid growing up in Florida: I remember one breezy day bicycling up to Mel's One Stop twice to get a new ball of kite string to add on to a string already played out--I think we got five whole balls onto it. You couldn't actually see the kite anymore, it was so high up. The end.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Japan, Tokyo: Ueno

I visited Tokyo for four days during Chuseok, a last minute decision that I ended up very happy with. I booked a hotel on-line, based on TripAdvisor.com recommendations, and was happy with it, too: the Oak Hotel, Ueno, a few minutes from the Inaricho station on the Ginza line. Inaricho itself is one stop away from Ueno, a major hub on the transport system. It is also the location of Ueno Park, a massive cultural resource, with some excellent museums, temples and such.

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On my first visit, there was some kind of expo surrounding spublic safety services, including a cute photo op for little ones:

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Other features include monuments to Wani the Scholar, the Great Ueno Buddha and Pagoda, and so on.

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The Tokyo National Museum actually consists of four different museums, each of them requiring at least two hours, so I only managed the main one, which focused on the traditional arts of Japan. First is a prehistoric icon, the classical painting is by Kitagawa Utamaro from the Edo period, flowed by a couple of nice pieces of Japanned inlay work. The last is a sampling of funerary statues.

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There are also several halls devoted to military costume.

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The National Museum of Nature and Science is the other major one I visited. It had a bit of science, mostly some antique scientific tools and instruments, but focused on natural history, and mostly the natural history of the Japanese islands. I'll begin with the obligatory giant hanging fossil skeleton, this one of a plesiosaur. There was a timeline in full-size diorama of human development (two shots included out of six), the distribution of meteorites, which was part of a nice collection of rocks and minerals, and a life-size blue whale model at the entrance.

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To access the Ueno park, you use a broad overpass that carries you over the JR (Japan Rail) portion of the station. If you go out the other end, you can make your way to Ueno Market. Here you can find clothes, groceries, street food, restaurants, and such entertainments as pachinko.

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Upcoming posts will be two: one about the touristy things I did during my brief time, and a second, deliciously, about food and drink.