The Double-Take at the Left-Hand-Side Steering Wheel

Unlike the rest of my peers back home who are currently enjoying their winter breaks, my break lasted just about two weeks. This is because fall semester at YNU starts in October and ends in mid-February. It’s roughly the same period of time spent studying, except set up so that the spring semester doesn’t start at the end of January — it, instead, actually starts in springtime, at the beginning of April.

Unfortunately while I was partying it up in Tokyo like crazy (as people came to visit and I wouldn’t get to see them for another seven months, at least!), I caught the season’s flu two days before my return to school, and it manifested itself in several ways over the first week back, culminating in my first absence from a class on a Friday morning. Thankfully, the weekend allowed me plenty of time to rest and recuperate, and now the symptoms are all but gone…except for one heck of a sore throat and — I’m gonna blame this on the illness — a messed-up circadian rhythm.

So here I am, playing games on my computer when suddenly hunger calls. I’d just finished off the bag of rice that’d lasted me through the past month and a bit, and my only pot was currently full of oil, having been used as a deep-fryer for karaage. I decided I’d just get a bento from the 24-hour bento place in the neighborhood, because it’s cheap, fast, fresh, and filling, and not in the Western fast food kinda way. (An aside: twice-cooked Szechuan pork stir-fry is amazingly delicious and I need to learn how to make it.)

As it turns out, it’s on the other side of the shopping street, across the river. That was fine by me, and the walk to and from the place was actually sort of refreshing.

It was on the way back that I saw a car, engine active, straddling the side of a parking lot like the lot was full and it decided to just block the lot in protest. Inside the car was a single man sitting in the front, left-hand-side of the car, with one of his hands on the steering wheel waiting expectantly.

Wait a minute, I thought.

Wait just a damn minute.

I tried to remember how the insides of cars looked back home. It was sort of surreal, that moment: no matter how many times I conjured up the inside of a car, driver’s side on the left, my mind was asking are you sure that’s how it was? Only while waiting for the crossing light on the main road did I confirm by means of the cars speeding by: yes, cars in America do have steering wheels on the left side of the vehicle, and drive on the right side of the road, and cars in Japan have steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle and drive on the left side of the road. Which means that car I’d passed was perhaps imported from America or some other place with left-side steering wheels.

What blows my mind is how long it took me to confirm that; and the fact that it took just about three months to get to this point. That was a bit weird.

I guess for the time being I’ll blame that, too, on the flu… ◆

Checking In ~ Preview: Happy New Year

Happy new year, everyone! 明けましておめでとうございます!

It’s been one hell of a weekend: a couple of friends showed up and we ended up at Comic Market (Comiket) 83, which happened right before New Year’s Day, giving me a one-two punch to my time (and my wallet). Do expect writeups of both, as I went to two days of Comiket and attempted to survive crowds at the Meiji Jingu for hatsumode (the first temple visit of the new year). Oh, and crazy things happened at Shibuya on midnight: let’s just say after braving Shibuya, the crowds at Comiket (take your ordinary convention center and then stuff 150,000 people into it for six hours) seemed really, really tame in comparison.

I ended up spending the entirety of New Year’s in recovery mode, but oh man, what a way to end 2012.

By the way, incidentally, today — the day after New Year’s Day — is when a good handful of shops put out fukubukuro, or lucky bags, filled with stuff and sold at a discount. My friend’s in Shibuya right now trying to score a couple of things from the famous 109 building…having went to all-night karaoke just prior to that. I can only hope he makes it out alive. Wouldn’t do well to survive an apocalypse only to get snuffed, right?

In any case, I hope you all have a wonderful 2013. Love and peace! ◆

Just Desserts

Carvin' out a tunnel through the ice cream mountain.

It all started out innocuously: a trip to a restaurant two days before Christmas garnered the attendance of a good amount of people, and merriment was had. What happened afterward, shook the hearts of many a Japanese student: I and two others introduced the hosts to the idea of a second stomach for dessert. (Image-heavy post ahead!)  (more…)

Taiyaki Trip: A Tribute to Sweet Breams

Sad but tasty taiyaki.

A lot of people have been joking about the end of the world Mayan calendar over the past week. It might not be the end of the world (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post), but it is the end of an era back home in the Bay: taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped pancake pastry, traditionally filled with red bean paste) outfit Sweet Breams, some thirty minutes by car from where I lived, decided to close up shop for good after four and something years serving up sweet chibi-taiyaki, soft serve ice cream, and wonderful kitsch and art aside. This happened just this Sunday, and, having not had taiyaki yet here, I decided I’d grab some in tribute.

Sadly, the taiyaki place that used to be here in Gumyoji back in 2008 has likewise closed up shop, so instead I opted for the next best thing: Yokohama Kuriko-an, which, despite being a store specializing in their namesake kuriko-an (chestnut/red bean paste) taiyaki, sells the pastries in a variety of different flavors. I’d hoped to get their “apple cheese cream” taiyaki (having assumed they really meant cream cheese), but apparently that was an autumn thing; apple-filling taiyaki was nowhere to be found. Instead, I went for two of this winter’s strawberry cheese cream taiyaki (¥180), alongside a normal custard cream one (¥140). I savored every last bit of all three of them, their just-sweet-enough fillings having been laid on super-super-thickly.

Swimming in the bag.

Granted, this isn’t the death of taiyaki in the Bay Area. I could go to May’s Coffee Shop in San Francisco’s Japantown if I really had a craving, but I won’t lie: I’ll miss Sweet Breams. Starting about a year before I started this program, I used to go from time to time with friends and we’d hit up what we called the Trifecta: Sweet Breams, Tpumps (a milk/bubble tea place that’s really good, really cheap, and therefore really popular), and Game Center (an independently owned arcade that’s been making a couple of waves in the fighting game community, but has some awesome setups otherwise). I’ve got handful of fond memories from before that, too; the most poignant being that on my way back from taking the JLPT 3-kyu (now N4) one year I’d rushed in and placed an order for three boxes of eggnog chibi-taiyaki right as they were closing…they were fine with me coming in late, amidst my apologies. (The eggnog taiyaki was delicious.)

So when they’d announced their last weekly flavor would be eggnog, I admittedly sort of teared up a bit. I’d told myself I would go and have myself a taiyaki on the day of their closing, but it wasn’t until tonight that I was actually able to get a trip to Kuriko-an in.

In any case, to Tara and the rest of the Sweet Breams crew: thanks a lot, and good luck in your future endeavors!

On Starting the Weekend with Transit Issues

It was the end of the first week of December.

Japanese announcements were blaring from the intercom. We stood there, slightly speechless, staring at the electric sign that should’ve been lit up with details on the next trains incoming. It, instead, showed only one line, alternating between Japanese and English: all service on the Blue Line — the Yokohama municipal subway system — had been suspended, and people were advised to take alternate modes of transportation.

There had been an omen earlier: the line for the bus outside of the FamilyMart right beside the Mitsuzawa-kamicho station entrance was far longer than it usually was. We’d been joking that the line’d been long because maybe something had happened to the subway, and maybe we should instead swing by a karaoke joint in Wada-machi before taking the Sotetsu line from the station there instead, but it turns out: it was true. There were, in fact, no trains to take.

Something had happened on a Japanese train system that made it shut everything down, and we were at a loss on what to do next.  (more…)

I’m Okay

To those people who know me IRL: yes, this earthquake just happened, and yes, we felt it in Yokohama. Don’t worry, we’re completely fine.

There was quite a bit that happened today on the way back from the university, though…I’ll put up a blog post tomorrow on that.

Mille-Feuille Pizza


For the pizza fan in Japan, there are plenty of options: go to a sit-down Italian restaurant (like, say, Saizeriya); go to a mom-and-pop pizza place (we’ve got one here in Gumyoji); or, the simple lazy option: delivery. There’s no shortage of places (serving pizza or otherwise) that’ll deliver food to your place of residence. (While I’m on the subject: Costco also exists in Japan, and, like its American counterpart, has pizza slices and full pies ready to order at their snack bar. I presume it’s take-out only, just like in America.)

American brands such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut have Japanese branches that’ll nurse your cravings while abroad, but there’s a catch: though the US has enjoyed the luxury of great deals such as Little Caesar’s $5 Hot-N-Ready boxes and Pizza Hut’s $10 for nearly-anything-you-want, Japan has not: pizzas are three to four times more expensive than what you’d pay back home. (This apparently isn’t true of just the US; my British and Australian friends have said likewise.)

Domino’s Japan seems to understand this: for those of us who use the English language, there’s a special site just for us.

On the English side of the Domino’s Japan website, there are several deals not to be found on the Japanese version — deals good enough that there’s a Japanese guide on how to order from the English pages because it’s cheaper that way. Tax isn’t included in the advertised prices, but with an automatic 5% off for placing your order online that’s stackable with other coupons and promos like the ones on the English page, you don’t have to worry about it.

So, in a weak moment of fiscal irresponsibility the name of checking whether or not these deals were actually worth it, I placed an order of the “Home Alone” package: one medium two-topping pizza (I went with basil and pepperoni) and a solitary can of Coke (yes, Coca-Cola or its diet variant only!). Normally, it’s ¥1400, but there was something I was sort of curious about.

When I think of interesting and occasionally strange pizza crusts, I think of Pizza Hut (an image that I also think may be perpetuated in Japan — Code Geass, anyone?), so when I saw these options for “mille-feuille” crust, I waffled slightly, then went for the triple for the sake of blogging science curiosity. Total cost: ¥1874, thirty minutes to delivery. And it arrived on time. Apologizing to the driver for my terrible Japanese, I paid and brought the pizza back up to my room.

Of course, the first thing I did was to take a look at its three layers — wait a minute, where’s the cheese I was promised?

Ah, there we go.

Turns out the cheese in the “layers” of this particular mille-feuille pizza were actually sort of spotty, moreso designed to give you a huge mouthful of mozzarella at once every few bites. There was one slice of pizza in which the cheese was actually fairly uniform, and that was quite nice. But with how the cheese was set up on the other slices, I was actually fairly surprised at how well it held together before I bit into it and the three layers separated in my mouth, making for a really nice texture. The pizza itself was rather small (the site claimed their medium is 10 in/25cm — update: according to a picture a friend posted, 10″ at Domino’s is a “small” in America); I was able to finish the entire pizza in one go. (mind, I hadn’t eaten anything beforehand).

Would I order it again? I didn’t think it was worth the premium, but if I’m in a super-cheesy mood, I might consider ordering another. ◆

I Promised You A Yakiniku Post

…but I ate all of it. Sorry. Next time, for sure.

I do highly recommend going to all-you-can-eat yakiniku at least once, though, if you enjoy eating meat. It’s quite nice. The place I’d visited was quite cheap, too: 2,000 yen, and another 360 yen for all-you-can-soft-drink.

Oh, and if anything’s going to get me to get used to munching on cartilage (referred to as “hormone” in Japanese — I don’t know why!)…it’s probably Japan. I’d already gotten used to munching on salted grilled beef tongue back home at Korean barbecue places, but…yeah, I guess I’m now leveling up my Asian food…sensibility. I guess.

I think I definitely won’t get used to liver, though — the texture and aftertaste just doesn’t sit well with me at present. ◆

Last Train Out of Kamiooka

Yesterday was a Friday; normally, I have classes on Fridays, but this Friday was a public holiday known as Labor Thanksgiving Day — to give thanks to each other for…working, I guess. In the old days, it was a harvest festival…I guess they needed an equivalent for the modern age.

In any case, for whatever reason, the gaming arcade I frequent in Kamiooka one stop down decided it’d hold a no-strings-attached free-to-play weekend on music games; people who know me well back home (and are reading this, right? 😉 ) know I love me some music games. The machines were to be set on free play from 9 to 12 both in the morning and in the evening; I was there for both of them, unlocking as much as I could on jubeat saucer, waiting in lines of up to sixteen people.

After squeezing in a four-song game of DrumMania XG3 to finish off my session night once jubeat had stopped accepting new players¹, I headed back, amidst an Japanese-and-English-language track telling people that the store was closing, to Kamiooka Station. There, I waited for the last train back home.

The vast majority of the trains on the municipal subway’s Blue Line go in one of two directions: to Azamino in the north, or to Shonandai in the south. This one, normally bound for Azamino, read that it was stopping at Nippa, some six stops shy of the Blue Line’s true endpoint, but home to the subway’s northern trainyard. I’d seen this before, but I’d never taken a Nippa-bound train. Inside the train was also sort of eerie: the recorded announcements that played and the scrolling text displays had nothing to say of Azamino. It’s not really a huge deal, mind — the train stopped and I got off at my station just fine — but it…still definitely felt a bit odd taking the last train out of Kamiooka.

And now I can say I’ve taken both the first train out of anywhere², and the last train out of anywhere, each for the first times in my life. ◆

1: Arcade machines have recently employed something called the Shop Close setting, which locks down the machine past a certain time; it’s very handy for gently getting people out of a given shop. Sort of nifty, actually.
2: I took the first train out of Yokohama after my first all-night karaoke session, which I still have yet to write about.