Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Butsudan - Bringing Buddha To The Home

2nd August, 2010 - Today I'll touch on something that is fairly common within Japan... Buddhist worship at home. Now T-chan's family are not especially religious, but they do have a Buddhist faith, sitting unobtrusively alongside their more traditional shinto customs, which in itself sits within a very broad view of the world. The most obvious focal point in their home, like many Japanese homes, is the butsudan - or Buddhist alter. These ornate home altars arose particularly during the Edo period from the the dedication to Buddhist teachings, and were designed to reflect the Buddhist temples, but in miniature. This is important in families of the eldest son, who may be seen as the heir to the family name. It's now very much a common part of the life within Japan.

I'm amazed at just how much intricate detail work is included in these altars... and just how gold they are. I'm not sure whether the use of gold is just an historical left over (and a great marketing ploy by butsudan makers to increase the cost of their goods?), but it certainly conveys the impression of grandness. Of course, I'm sure the real Buddha was never one for such golden shrines (although the historical Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha was supposedly born a prince...). The altars themselves are housed within a larger cupboard for protection...

There are lots of paraphernalia associated with the butsudan... other than the central statue of the Buddha, rice offerings, candle-sticks and of course the incense sticks and Buddhist scriptures. Actually, it's not unusual to find food (including vegetables) being placed here overnight, an offering and yet something also to be consumed (perhaps extra tasty after a good period of blessing).

A small rin or bell/gong sits to the right (shown below)...these are sometimes known as singing bowls due to the fact that they (like bells) resonate when played along its surface with cylindrical hammer or mallet (I think they're called kon). These are often used in the practice of meditation and ancestor worship.

Okaasan had organised for a monk to come by for a special blessing. It's a strange combination to see the traditional buddhist aspects juxtaposed with L-kun's foam play mat. But the reality is that every part of T-chan's house in Japan is now L-kun's play area while we're there. Unfortunately, T-chan and I were going out so we didn't stay for the monk's visit (and I'm not sure it would have been so appropriate to be snapping away with my camera anyhow).

L-kun has always been interested in the butsdan, and often would sit by Okaasan when she prayed. I'm sure he doesn't understand exactly what's going on, but he knows that it's solemn, quiet and serious time. I think it's nice for L-kun to grow up with a broad spiritual base.

And here's just some more gratuitous photos of Okaasan's flower arrangements. She loves her flowers, and especially in Spring (although this was well into Summer by now), her front garden is always alive with colour of plants in bloom.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Digital Members of Our Family...

As I've mentioned previously, we actually went out and bought two new digicams during this holiday... and more importantly, we stepped up to the DSLR world for the first time. Our first purchase was a Canon EOS Kiss X3 (as it's branded in Japan), or as it's otherwise known the Canon 500D or Rebel T1i (in the USA). This is sort of the entry level (at the time) DSLR in the Canon range. It's a very light single lens reflex camera with a 15MP CMOS sensor. At the time, we were tossing up to go the Nikon, Pentax or Canon path - or to cross over into the mirrorless micro 4/3 format (such as Sony's NEX-5). The lightness of the camera however, with retention of an optical viewfinder was the selling point (not to mention the price... as this was already being superseded by Kiss X4). The photo quality is great - but not perfect... with a slight tendency to over-expose (from my impression), and not quite the best low-light performance. However, the photos have a nice distinctive look from the camera out of the box, and it's easy to use and it has a relatively good battery life.

We got the twin lens kit... an 18-55 with a 55 - 250mm Canon lenses. In hindsight, it would have been better to have gone with the single super zoom lens... but the lens costs about the same as the camera + twin lens set  just by itself. The cam also does 1080p movies - but to be honest, it's movie system is just a little weird. It won't replace a video camcorder. However, overall, I have to say that it's been a great camera, and we've definitely got a lot of use out of it. Best of all, it's been relatively easy to adjust to the DSLR way of taking photos - though this is an ongoing thing.

We also purchased a handy travel camera that was intended to be T-chan's camera of choice for taking with her... ready to take snaps of L-kun whenever and wherever the opportunity came. We ended up purchasing the Nikon Coolpix S8000 principally as it had English (unlike the Sony brands which only have Japanese in cameras purchased in Japan), had a good zoom range (10x), good macro, good resolution (14MP... though you don't get the quality of photos that suggests), nice display and was relatively light and slim - and could also take HD video - albeit 720p. It was also a brand that we'd as yet not tested (and perhaps will not test again for compacts due to some very bizarre design choices Nikon made)

I should say however, the photos are not bad... not bad at all (except in moderate to low light, where it seems to have extraordinarily slow optics - due perhaps to the 10x zoom). The short-comings were the things that only become apparent after a bit of use, and they weren't the sorts of things that were in the reviews. Zannen... what a shame... it looks like we are yet to find the compact digicam that lives up to our expectations. 

Over the span of this blog, we've used Pentax, Fujifilm, Olympus, Lumix (2), Canon (2) and now Nikon. We're running out of brands to try. Anyhoooo... you might notice a marked change in the photos that we took from this point on. And yes - some of the photos are just completely blatant "practice using a DSLR" shots. So please be patient with me over the next few posts where I kinda go camera crazy (ok...I'm still a little camera crazy)... and feel sympathy for our poor hard-drives that had to adsorb hundreds - nay thousands - of photos. Not to mention me - for having to do something with those thousands of photos.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lotteria... The Tower Cheese Burger of Death

31st July, 2010 - One of the things that are often said about Japanese food... the small portions. Well, we came across one of the Japanese burger joints, called Lotteria, that sort of broke that rule. Big time. The Tower Cheese Burger of Death (ok the Death part is my own invention).

Now generally, I'm a bit of a sucker for a decent hamburger...and there are few times that I would knock back one... I have however met my match. Actually Lotteria is not a favourite by a long stretch of the imagination, and we would not normally eat here.

Who could eat such a evil looking hamburger - and if you could, why would you want to? Even for the modest price of 1060 yen? The vision of this thing haunts me to this day. I have nightmares about being squashed beneath a collapsing Tower Cheeseburger... but I bet this is nothing compared to the nightmares (and potential premature death) of anyone having actually eaten one of these.

If you've tried one... please let me know (and preferably provide photographic evidence... as long as it's not too graphic).

Maybe after all of that, I sort of regret not having attempted one of these; for it will forever remain the Everest I never climbed.

Edit - the thing about this is that you can essentially go as high as you want for a trifling 100 yen per patty.... so a 10 patty burger is 1060 yen (160 yen for a cheeseburger, plus an extra 900 yen for another 9 beef patties). What a GREAT idea!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sapporo - A Few Quick Facts... And Cake

31st July, 2010 -  Sapporo is a reasonable sized city - in fact, 5th largest city in Japan. Now whilst you might have in your mind the image that Japanese cities are sprawling megatroplii, the reality is quite different once you get out of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya... indeed, Sapporo is a fairly low-lying city, with few large buildings. That is partly to do with the population (only 1.9 million), and perhaps partly to do with weather (a lot of the city's commercial areas lay underground in a series of arcades).

The weather in Sapporo's generally on the, well... cool side.... but it might surprise some people to know that it's not that cold. The coldest month, January, just sneaks below an average maximum temperature below zero degrees Celsius... and in August it gets a warm 26 degrees maximum on average. Of course, when you throw in wind-chill into the winter temperatures it's a little bit of a different story. The one thing is they definitely have plenty of snow...with over an average of 180 cm in January... a good reason to build underground where it's warm and out of the wind.

The above was regenerated from the Japanese Meteorological Agency website for weather records since 1877 (except for snow depth which was from 1955). (Post-script... I realised after doing these, that I don't really understand the numbers. If I take my own experience ... the snow-depth in January / February is pretty deep... I would imagine that you might get a good 30-40 cm on a good day... and I can't say I recall that much rain during these months.... as compared to snow... so I'm not sure how to interpret these figures...)

The tallest building in Sapporo is the JR Sapporo Station building (known as JR Tower) - and it's a bit of a compass point for navigation within the city. Actually, there's a good observatory in the building, though T-chan and I have yet to go up to the top... next trip perhaps. This building has been around since 2003... but it must have been opened just as I arrived for my first trip (as I can't recall what used to be here).
JR Sapporo Station

Public transport in Japanese cities tends to be good - but I'm a little hesitant about saying it's that great in Sapporo. Basically, there's the main train line that runs through the city, and then there's the subway spokes coming out from Odori... combined with the trams (street-cars) and buses it's ok, but I'd have to say that there's a lot of attractions in Sapporo that are best seen with a car.

Source: Official Sapporo Tourist Website.

We're lucky in that T-chan's house has good access to trains and subways... and of course, we can always borrow the parents car if we need to.

The main thoroughfare is between JR Sapporo Station and Odori Kouen... down the green boulevard below. Actually, when we visited in 2010, they were still working on the underground arcade linking the two... literally underneath this street. They've since opened that arcade (and I'll post about it in my 2011 trip posts).

But Sapporo Station is definitely a focal point for shopping, and one of the best things to do is go downstairs in the basement of Daimaru... where (like many Japanese department stores) you'll find all number of different food shops. 

I thought I'd just add a few photos... given that I'm starting to get hungry... The Japanese love their sweets, and they have any number of different brands. Hokkaido is relatively famous for it's chocolates and sweets... and they definitely aim at the tourist market as well (the Japanese tourist market that is).

Now Japanese cakes may not be for everyone (as they are light flavoured), but if you're like me and you don't like the super sweet cakes - especially the ones that you buy here in Adelaide - then it's a refreshing change. And like most things Japanese, presentation is all important.

And if you're wondering - 2415 yen is about $28-$30 AUD at the moment. Almost too good to eat.

And along with the big cakes you'll find all manner of small delicacies..

Man - I really am getting hungry now! Well - lunch time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Off to the Big Smoke... For a Bite to Eat.

31st July, 2010 - My first full day in Japan for 2010, and we wasted no time. Off to the city to do some shopping for a new camera at Yodobashi - one of my favourite stores (for those that don't know, Yodobashi's a great electronics store in Japan - and very big).

And whilst we were in the city, a quick bite to eat in a nice little izakaya (Japanese pub cafe) called Marumiya on the western exit of Sapporo Station - on the way to Yodobashi.

T-chan selects from the menu. The good thing about a lot of cafe's and izakaya in Japan is that many have menus with pictures (or they might have the plastic food models out front). Makes food selection so much easier - and you don't need to wonder what's it going to be like. Of course, a lot of the food is fairly standard (and today was some old favourites)

Some yummy Japanese beer... there's never a bad time for this.

Some delicious ton-katsu (essentially a Japanese pork schnitzel)

Whilst T-chan had a Ramen Salad... Hmmm.. scrumptious.

And they all came with a lovely soup... in a cup.

And lets not forget the onigiri, or rice balls. Those these are just a little fancy...

The atmosphere inside is quite nice... clean and simple, but I loved the walls'o'sake (above) and the cozy little booths as well. Actually, I'm not sure if this is still their current decor, as they appeared to be renovating the whole area when I was there a few weeks ago.

And the other thing I had to get used to was the coffee cups that always come 3/4 full (unlike here in Australia, when you ask for a coffee, it's normally near over-flowing). The first time I went to Japan I was quite surprised at how small the coffees were for the price. But over the 8 years I've been going, the price of coffees like much in Japan has remained relatively static, whilst the prices in Australia have been getting progressively more expensive.

Actually, I don't tend to take photos of food... we tend just to enjoy simple meals in Japan, and they're not really photo worthy. I guess today I was just in the mood of taking photos...  and one of the things that I've always enjoyed in many other peoples blogs are their photos of food. So I thought I'd try taking some food photos with our trusty (but old) Lumix FS7 ultra compact digicam. Little did I know then just how things would change when we stepped up to the world of DSLR's...

Actually... not only did we buy one camera on this trip, we bought two... let's just say digicams are our curse...

But that's for another time. Right now, I'm getting hungry.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Daddy Arrives... Finally... in 2010.

30th July, 2010 - Well, this is a little strange... I'm writing this in "now time", but most probably won't post it until I've finished my posts from previous trips. So, here I am. On my way to Japan. T-chan and L-kun had already been in Japan for about 6 weeks, having a good time with Ojiichan and Obaachan (grandfather and grandmother)... and enjoying an unseasonably hot/humid summer. I have to admit that I was somewhat worried about just how hot it was going to be in Japan - especially coming from a cold and miserable Adelaide winter.

Still - my first reaction when stepping off the plane in Narita was: it's actually not that bad. What was all the fuss about. This was further heightened by the trip to Sapporo (departing from Narita about 4 hours later) which was conspicuous for it's lack of view from the window seat. Cloudy the whole way.

L-kun and Okaasan waiting in the public area

Arriving in Sapporo, I had been a bit worried about how L-kun would react. New Chitose Airport is quite frustrating in that they separate the new arrivals waiting at the luggage belts from those waiting for their loved ones by a series of big glass windows. So close... but unable to hug or even really talk to each other while waiting for luggage to appear. Those 6 weeks of just seeing Daddy on Skype were over... and L-kun was stoked to see Daddy. Even if he Daddy did seem to take forever to find his suitcase.

It was great to T-chan... 1.5 months without my gorgeous wife had left me a hollow man. And I was so happy to get a squeeze from her at the airport. Don't expect any great shows of intimate affection in public however. That's not the Japanese way. Especially in front of her parents.

Sapporo's New Chitose Aiport is getting bigger and bigger. Impressive - but still for all that work, it's a very, VERY long way from the city, and even longer away from home. We stopped off at the rest-stop along the highway to have some home-made rice balls (onigiri) and tea. Time to stretch the legs and breath in some nice fresh (warm) Hokkaido air.

At the rest stop....

I hadn't slept at all during the night flight from Australia - not that unusual for me. Of course, it was hard to take some time off to rest during the day as L-kun was full-on and I didn't want to miss a second of it. He was even more handsome and funny than when they had left Australia... and his Japanese had improved more in those 6 weeks than they had in perhaps years of myself. Impressive - but also somewhat sobering at my own lack of dedication to improve my Japanese.

That night I hit the sack early and was literally asleep before I had time to say "oyasumi"... goodnight.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Moernuma Park - The Great Outdoors

26th July, 2010 - The whole family was off to visit Moernuma Park, on the north-east of the city... a reasonable drive away. This is one of the more unusual parks, but much like many things in Sapporo, it' young, bold and just a little off-centre. It's also just across the road from Satoland, which I posted about just before.

View Sapporo

Now for those that don't have access to a car, you can take the Subway Toho Line to "Kanjo dori higashi" and transfer to"Higashi 69" or "Higashi 79*" bus on the Chuo Bus Kita Satsunae Line to "Moere koen higashiguchi(east entrance)" (directions thanks to here).

The park has an interesting story behind it... the park was originally, of all things, a garbage tip (to put it bluntly) - and a marshland. Not the sort of place that would immediately spring to mind when you think family day out. In the late 80's Sapporo had a bold plan for re-development of it's urban spaces, and part of that was for a large green-space, to replace what must have been a pretty dire place back then. They contracted the famous landscape artist and sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, to design the park. He developed his master design, based on the concept of park that was itself a complete sclupture... and completed his miniature sculpture in 1990. Alas he died of heart failure shortly after that, and hence the park was developed only from his initial plans. The park was finally completed in mid 2005 - a project taking over 15 years!

The park was originally a waste treatment site - and had processed some 2.7 million tonnes of garbage. One might well ask, where did all that garbage go? Hmmm.... I hesitate to say it, but the Mount Moere might be the first place I'd start looking. At around 62m in height, it provides an excellent vantage point, and a great place to roll-down if you're a child.

The other sculpture element that dominates the park is the glass pyramid, nicknamed Hidamari (or sunny spot) - although it's not actually a pyramid as such, but a pyramidal roof on a rather dynamic three story functional building. Noguchi was half Japanese-half American, but he clearly had that strong geometric lines view that has come to characterise many new (90s+) Japanese buildings.

Being summer however, the one extra bonus of the park is the large artificial beach/lake that can be enjoyed by children (L-kun) and adults (otousan) alike. It's great for taking a picnic lunch and just enjoying the great outdoors. Other attractions include a 3000 cherry tree forest. As I've not been there, I'm not sure about what it's like in Spring, but I'd imagine that the trees are still developing. When matured, it must be a grand place to do hanami in spring. L-kun was just happy to play in the water on what was a hot and humid Sapporo day.

The last attraction that I'll write about is the water sculpture, the Sea Fountain. This sits near a 150m long canal, and is one of the centre points of the park. There are a number of regular shows throughout the day, including both short and long displays. The long display takes about an hour to complete however... so you need to have patience... and take some protection from the sun. The show highlights a number of different aspects of water, and some of the phases are truly spectacular.

I'll show some snapshots of the show - but they don't really encompass the dynamic nature of the show, and the sheer scale.

I'm not sure if L-kun had enough patience to enjoy the whole show - but this is one most probably for the older children and adults.

Now, it's interesting that T-chan actually prefers Satoland to Moernuma Park - I've still yet to go there myself, so I can't comment. Like many things in Sapporo unfortunately, the transit system isn't the best, and driving is certainly the easiest way to get there. Also like many such places in Sapporo, it's free all year round... and whilst it might seem to be a great place in the "fine" months, it takes on a different aspect in winter, with cross-country skiing courses (where you can hire the equipment for free) criss-crossing the park.

So if you get the chance, and you've got the time... it's a great place to take the children.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Child's Heaven, A Parent's Hell?

23rd July, 2010 - Japan is, amongst other things, a country of distractions. It is the country of Pachinko (perhaps the ultimate mind-numbing distraction), land of Manga, the birth-place of Karaoke, and the home of any number of other activities. It's also well known for it's electronic entertainment, and you're never too far away from some form of arcade centre. Our local Aeon shopping centre is no exception, with two venues (on  either end of the building) to satisfy the requirements of the you and old alike.

Some games, like the Taiko drum game, are just plain fun (who can not see the fun in bashing away at two large drums?), and some (like the one below) are just a little strange... or should I say Japanese....

Others are a little more traditional (with a bit of oversight from Anpanman, of course - just to keep things in order). It's nice to see that after all these years, that merry-go-rounds are still a firm favourite amongst children.

At the end of the day however, game arcades are fun places... bright flashing lights, loud grating sounds, countless violence and gambling undertones, and of course endless opportunities to spend money. It is indeed  a child's heaven. Oh - and don't forget what happens when you decide it's time to leave. Ah - how quickly heaven can descend into a neon, tear-streaked hell. L-kun hadn't quite got the hang of the whole in-moderation concept yet...

Actually L-kun loves game centres (not surprising), but we tend to steer clear of them. They're good for a treat, but shopping at Aeon often ends up being a continual battle of wits (and will) to determine who can out-smart the other in steering a course towards the games.

In this digital age, perhaps we're being overly protective in trying to limit L-kun's exposure to the cheap thrills of the arcade. Indeed, perhaps it's nigh on child abuse, retarding his finger-eye coordination. Still, we think at 3 years old, he'll have enough time to enjoy the fun and games of the Japanese arcade when he gets older...And has his own pocket money.

Of course - now if Daddy wants to play......