Thursday, July 25, 2013

Salty Melons

Now there is a conflict of interest. 

And Japan is all over it. They actually think me weird for not putting salt on my watermelon slices. It is actually so common for them to eat watermelons with salt that they even sell them next to each other in grocery stores. I can't even be certain if they are aware of the goodness of watermelons without salt. But perhaps it is something you need to grow up with to just accept it like that. Like eating natto for breakfast everyday or raw fish that some people in the West are squeamish about. 

I was over at a Japanese home earlier this summer and the home owner noticed I was about to bite into a nice juicy-to-the-point-of-dripping watermelon an reaches over and salts it for me.
...Uh Thanks? I guess?
Watermelon ruined. Or so I thought. I won't claim it was good. Or that I was necessarily in favor of this new disaster. But it wasn't as terrible as I thought. I can't accurately describe its sensation, just that it reminded me a lot of Gatorade and much less of succulent watermelons. I recommend you try it only to be able to describe it better than myself. And if your hand just can't force itself with salt upon a poor unsuspecting watermelon, have a little old Japanese lady come over and help you with that. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

You Drive me crazy

Driving around Japan is a frightful thing

First off they all drive on the wrong side of the road. And have their steering wheels on the wrong side of the car. How long have I lived here and am still getting used to that? Which side of the car am I on again?
But by far the most frightening thing is turning in traffic. Especially right turns. In America, right turns are allowed even when most lights are red. This is because you rarely disrupt the flow of traffic when you turn right. I mean of course you yield to those who have the right of way. But the point I am trying to make is that right turns in America interfere with no other lanes, you cross no other lanes, you needn't wait for a break in the on coming traffic to go, and lights more or less don't pertain to you. In Japan, that would be the left lane. The right hand turn is now the most dreaded thing. It went from the easiest thing in the world to scaring the poop out of me with the constant reminder that Japan doesn't know how to regulate their roads correctly.

So then with that right hand turn with left-hand mentality thing going for me, you would then think that 'Oh, that would make the left-hand turn a right-hand mentality right?' Wrong. They don't allow you to make left hand turns at red lights. But wait, you thought that well that is a bummer. They change the rules and make it harder and more frustrating right with waiting for the lights? Wrong again. They also do their damndest to make it more confusing. You see there are these blue and white signs with arrows on them that indicate the flow of traffic for the lane you are in. Now if that is a blue sign with a white arrow as they normally are, that means you have the no go. You have to wait like everybody else, or like normal Japanese rules of traffic dictate. BUT if you have a white sign with a blue arrow, you can proceed, yielding to whatever traffic that has the right of way in the process of course, any damn time you please. What.

And then there are the highways. Oh boy I love the highways. They were probably constructed by the most illogical person ever. First of all they give you too much information about where the roads lead. For example, there are two exit ramps which then cross again later so then the following sign will show something like a nose-diving Jesus fish and hope that you will understand which one you are meant to take.
There is one convenient things about these signs. If it is electronic, it will often have displayed for you which route has heavy traffic in case you have an alternate route in mind. Japan is actually really good with their electronic maps and boards that will tell you the weather and traffic conditions along the highways and in major towns appearing every so often.
One last good thing, is that along the highways are rest stops. And when I say rest stop, Japan completely redefines rest stops with convenience stores, multiple restaurants, local goods store, shower areas, sleeping areas, sometimes a malls, the highest tech most cleanly bathrooms. Which, if I am going to be paying that much to use the highway, at least they give us this...

But back to the expressways being frustrating. The highways are not exactly numbered (some have numbers, but no one really knows them and not all the signs use them), they don't necessarily go North to South or East to West, and they have names that may or may not change at points. How you navigate them is you pretty much just have to have the idea of where you are going and then sprinkle a bit of flu power on the road and then a magical unicorn will appear dashing alongside a bunch of dolphins showing you the direction you need to go.
But really. You do have to know relatively where you are going. You also have to know just about every stop on the way. You pretty much get on the highway and then head to a major city that is sort of in the direction of where you intend to go. For example, if I leave Kyoto and want to go to Mount Fuji, I will get on the expressway and then I will have the choices of Nagoya or Osaka. I will choose Nagoya, as it is closer to my destination. Traveling on further I will have another choice once I reach Nagoya, or perhaps I will have a junction and a whole other expressway to merge into or choose from either way I would have to know to head toward a sign labeled Nagano and then on to Tokyo or something in a similar direction and get off when I come across the right town exit (Fujisanyoshida) located between the two major cities (Nagano and Tokyo).

Infuriatingly enough, Japan makes you really pay and arm and a leg for this experience too. Their toll roads do no come cheap. There are times you can use them for cheap, mainly between the times 10pm and 6am. Evidently even if you are only express way only a few minutes during this time, you qualify. Though this might only be if you are clocked in at one of the station during these times. Meaning if you pass the ETC scanner and it marks your progression to another part of the highway or the start or end of your journey. I am unsure about these exact rules. But it is supposedly a pretty nice discount. I think half. Well anyways. Using my example from earlier, to go from Kyoto to Fuji is 3,600 yen and then again to go back. This is on top of gas and parking fees. It makes you wonder why anyone would ever buy a car with prices like that. Especially because their public transportation is so good and they have buses and tours going everywhere at every time of day. Cars are really considered a luxury that they love to make sure you pay fro the privilege of owning.
Speaking of luxury and owning cars, it is sort of popular to have foreign cars here. I talking about having your American car shipped over here. It shows a bit of status to have a steering wheel on the correct side of the car. They even cater to these people for the highways as well by having ticket windows along what would for them be the passenger side of the car. There is a special lane dedicated to it even.

And that....that is what it means to drive in Japan.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Foodies of Japan

Japan is full of foodies. Pretty much everyone is a foodie here.

Every time someone goes somewhere special, even if it is the next town over, you will get food. These little rice cracker omiyages or a sweet cookie flavored in that cities famed orange flavoring. As you might know here, every city is 'famous' for something. And many cities just so happen to be famed for exceedingly similar if not identical things.

But beyond the little food culture presents, everyone here is forever taking photos of their food. You will always know a Japanese tourist in any country if they are the ones taking about 20 pictures of their dinner plates while it grows cold. Turning it different angles trying to get the light and the shutter frame exactly perfect to best accent their delicious dish. And then they might even proceed to whip out their phone to take a few more to upload them to facebook or mixi or whatever other social network they are using.

And then. Then there are the mangoes that cost 20-30 dollars per mango. Or the melons, the cantaloupes that are upwards of 50 dollars or some even nearing 100. Just for a single, solitary, individual, normal sized melon. These melons and mangoes are thought to be perfectly shaped and perfectly colored and the perfect gift. I cannot attest to the taste of them and I almost wonder if anyone actually eats them or just has them rotting on display as a look what perfect amazing melons I have (jokes intended). I also have never seen anyone buy them, which begs the question, what does the store do when the melons and mangoes start to go soft and over ripen? Do they just get placed with the other fruits? Do they go on discount? Perhaps this is all just an elaborate scheme to garner more money by the grocery stores who just switch out the melons with a more ripe one with no one the wiser, because honestly, who really looks and measures how perfectly their melon is shaped? I can say this for the stores though, these delectable are exceptionally carefully packaged and preserved with the best efforts, placed in silk lining and cradled in foam and then packaged up neatly in a nice little box. So maybe you are just buying into the appearance? Wouldn't be the first time anyone bought into appearances (one night stands, wives, material goods, plastic surgery) But who would ever want to buy into this beyond me. Additionally, when all gift wrapped up, no one will really know how much it is worth, unless they are a shapely-melon connoisseur. So my idea would be to by a nice, normal looking melon and wrap it up neatly and make people think that you spent that much on them and then bathe in their worship for your perfect choosing of melon-ness. Honestly, if you are going to spend 50 dollars buying me fruit, I am going to be expecting like a me-sized portion of bananas. Which would be undoubtedly awesome. Especially if it looked like me.

These special fruits in Japan are bought and given obviously on special occasions, perhaps to a retiring boss or to an employee who recently received a promotion, or maybe in the event of a wedding. I can't help but think of this as a way to throw money around and flaunt it. I have so much money I don't know what to do with myself, so let me buy this outrageously priced melon to flaunt it a bit. And oddly, people don't have that much money here. By far and large ( way over 50%) of the money held in Japan is by the elderly who have retired.

Korea actually has something similar to this, but with a much more reasonably priced tag. Korea will sell you boxes of spam or fruit or what have you all neatly packaged for perhaps a third or a fifth of the price. These gift boxes are much more common in their culture and are given on any number of occasions. House warming, recent holiday, home coming, new baby, hair cut. Well you get the point. But these things will normally at most cost you 30 dollars for an extremely nice set of what have you. Also their gift goods have a much wider variety: dishes, towels, spam (a crowd favorite), grapes, even toothpastes (that was a weird one to get!).

I can understand the little rice crackers from every city and prefecture, I can almost understand the food pictures, but this...This is a truly outrageous and bizarre food culture of Japan.