Friday, September 23, 2011

Asahiyama Zoo Pt 1 - Polar Bear Fun In The Sun

 10th of August, 2010 - Well it's a special day - we're off to the zoo... Asahiyama Zoo. Now - this is where I think I might lose people a little, so I'll try and explain slowly. Asahiyama is a mountain in Sapporo. That's not where the zoo is. Asahiyama Zoo in fact isn't even in Asahiyama. No. It's in Asahikawa. That's a large-ish city to the north of Sapporo (see below), about 137 km from Sapporo / 2 hours drive (by tolled expressway) or 150 km / 3 hours drive by untolled roads. Once you get into the city you'll see plenty of signs for the zoo - and just be aware that there's at least two entry points.

Now it was a reasonable drive, so we all got in the car nice and early to get there for the opening of the zoo, around 9:30 am in summer, or 10:30 in winter. Tickets are 800yen per person - or if you pay an extra 200 yen, you can visit for as many times as you want (for about 6 months). The zoo itself was first opened in 1964 but had pretty well started to die (like many Japanese tourist parks) in the early-mid 90's. Around that time they took a brave step in 1997 to re-invest a lot of funds into making the exhibits more immersive - no, thankfully not interactive! It worked. Asahiyama Zoo has one of the reputations of being one of the best Zoos in Japan, and is always very popular. Indeed it has been battling head to head with Ueno Zoo in terms of the total number of visitors per year (and is now around 3.5 million!). That's a lot of people, and whilst we didn't expect they'd all chose this day to visit the zoo, it was still going to be busy. The drive up to Asahikawa is quite nice - although cloudy in part. Still it's a bit of countryside that I hadn't experienced before.

Now I've split this post over two (as I'm essentially lazy) and I won't go into too much detail on the history of the zoo of the animals. Most are not that unique. In fact I'd have to say that I'm not so keen on Japanese zoos in general as the exhibits tend to be a little cramped and dated - and a bit of a throwback. Asahiyama is however quite different, with lots more vegetation and natural environs as well as a number of special viewing spots.

One of my favourites were the wolves. You'd be surprised how hard it is to spot a black wolf (though you might wonder looking at the photos). When prone in the grass they were hard to see. Once you do catch hold of those eyes you never lose them again. They're powerful and mesmerising set of peepers.

Actually, despite the grey look about the day in the photo above, when we got to Asahikawa it was mostly fine, and I have to say HOT. I felt particularly sad for the wolves. Black thick winter coats. Still, I'm sure they would have liked to help me get out of my flesh-coat... if givne have a chance.

Then of course there are other slightly less imposing wild dogs. It's hard to look menacing when you're scratching behind your ears.

One of the stranger animals here - or at least I thought it was strange - is the Capybara, from southern Americas. Now when I first saw this animal I thought - awwwww isn't it cute. It kinda looks like a cross between a Guinea Pig (hamster) and a hippopotamus. Ok, I'm not evern going to try and imagine how that could happen. Ewwwwgh. Still, they're a an odd animal in that from one angle they look quite handsome.

From other angles they seem to better fit their title of the world's largest rodents. Weighing typically around 50 kg, these are large. And thankfully they very much are herbivores. Still... the rodent instinct is likely buried in there somewhere. By the way - did you know what makes a rodent a rodent? Apparently it's the fact that these mammals have continuously growing incisors that are only kept under check by constant mastication. That's right - I said MASTICATION. Chewing.

The other animal that I was particularly sympathetic to was the Red Panda, or as it's otherwise known - the Lesser Panda. It was really looked like it struggled... but the interesting thing about the Red Panda enclosure is that there's actually two that are separated by the footpath... with only a log allowing the Panda to walk over everyone's head to move between the two. Still today, the poor Panda didn't do a whole heap of moving.

It did however give us all an honest appraisal - and the verdict wasn't good.

The real attraction for me was the Polar Bear show. I have to admit that these massive animals are one of my favourites. Why - well if you've ever seen a Polar Bear swimming under water you'd understand. They're amazing things to see under water, freed of their huge weight. Of course - above water they're pretty awesome too. In a BIG way.

Forget about the Angry Birds - you would definitely not want to make one of these babies upset with you. I thought it quite disturbing to have the windows so close to the bears. They seemed to have an unhealthy interest in us snacks visitors behind the glass.

Now the main attraction is the pool which is opened up regularly - however - there is often a very long queue to get into the observation area. And I mean a long queue. It took us maybe over 30 minutes of lining up (actually, at least this amount). The thing is that they let people in for about 10 minutes at a time, and then you get moved along. It does feel a little like a conveyor belt at times, but I suppose there's few things that can be done given how popular they are. 

And it is worth it. It's amazing seeing these great creatures being so  flexible and yes graceful under water. And there's always plenty of fish being thrown in to keep the Polar Bear interested.

Whilst I might not have been getting good photos (the windows can be deceptive for the autofocus on cameras, and manually focusing proved very hit-and-miss with emphasis on miss).

Still hopefully you get some feel for how they go... lots of fun (if you can stand being like a sardine...with the human press). 

One of the funny things was that we gave one of the cameras to Otousan to take photos whilst I used the DSLR and T-chan used the video camera. It was interesting to see some of the photos - but much appreciated Otousan!

Some of the photos were just a little too - er - personal however. Although I do have to admit that Polar Bear bottoms are very cute. Or is it just me?

Of course, if you want to get really up close and personal, there's always the rather obliging (and stuffed) Polar Bear out the back. They're a beautiful animal however, and I'd always search out Polar Bears wherever I go. Although I wasn't that keen to wait around as much as we did - especially in the heat which had started to get quite oppressive.

Now we're about halfway through the visit to Asahiyama Zoo... and L-kun was getting just a little trigger happy. So I'd better call it quits for the moment, and finish off this post over the next day or so. Until that time... go ahead, make my day!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sudako and Temaki Zushi... Why I Gain Weight in Japan - Again

9th August, 2010 - Well I was in for a treat again tonight. Two dishes. Sudako and Temaki zushi - or simply put, hand-rolled sushi. I'll start off with some gratuitous entree diversion known as "sudako", or pickled octopus. First off - get yourself an octopus... then it's pickled in Japanese rice vinegar, sugar, and most likely a good helping of MSG (yes folks, it's not just chinese food that loads up on the good ol' monosodium glutamate). Still - I'd be more interested in knowing how they manage to get this colour!

Slice and dice said octopus (purchased already pickled). Hmmmmmmmm.... tentalicious! This isn't necessarily for the temaki zushi, but it's a great side dish. Any time. Of course - this is not raw... and it's not just eaten by itself.

Instead, it's nicely served up with a big old dollop of Japanese mayonnaise, soy sauce and shichimi spice, or seven flavoured chilli spice. The octopus is simply picked up an dipped into the mayo. Simple and stupendously yum. Who said great food has to be complicated?

Now most people when they hear sushi, their thoughts turn to the small shop-bought sushi from their local (healthy eating fast food). Alternatively, there's the image of the crusty chef who's been perfecting the art of making sushi for decades and whose sushi melts in the mouth. Finally there's those of us foolhardy enough to go and buy a sushi rolling kit and try and do it ourselves. The results of these attempts are normally fraught with stress at getting a decent looking sushi roll.

Now here's the thing...We finally come across (possibly - surprisingly - for the first time in my blog) Nattō. Yes. Nattō. Doesn't sound too bad, does it? Looks kinda like baked beans... but trust me, if computer technology had advanced enough to communicate sheer ickiness, then you'd get the right impression. Nattō is a fermented soy bean... or as we call it, rotten beans. It comes with it's own bacterial growth for crying out loud (Bacillus Subtilis... which by the way, apart from generating rotten beans, can do interesting things such as decompose some forms of explosives. Even I have to admit that's pretty cool) . Nattō 's pungent, highly sticky (and stringy) and has a very sharp nutty flavour. The Japanese love it, and I guess it's one of the reasons they are Japanese after all. So this ingredient is for T-chan and her family. I regret to say, that L-kun loves it as well. 

Now you can't have temaki zushi without some nori... seaweed sheets. Love it. This is just cut into quarters, perhaps about 10 cm square (or slightly larger).

The secret of making sushi rice is vinegar... and Japanese rice vinegar in particular. You can buy sushi powder as well (to provide a more authentic flavour - and which is a common additive in Japanese homes) - or failing that you can make your own extra flavouring by adding sugar and salt to the vinegar. A simple recipe is: for 3 cups of rice you will need to add 1/2 cup of vinegar, 2 tbsp of sugar and 1/2 tsp of salt. Mix the vinegar, sugar and salt, and then gradually and gently paddle the mix into the cooked rice. Add to taste - and be careful not to add too much vinegar. T-chan's parents do it the easy way with sushi rice powder.

It's also good to add in some prawn or ebi. Ebi are one of L-kun's favourite foods, and it's usually the first thing that he'll look for or ask for.

Now for the main ingredients for the sushi. We simply use raw tuna (maguro), salmon (sake), mackerel (saba), cucumber, salmon roe (ikura) - or as we did this night, you can use something like flying fish roe (tobiko), cooked egg roll cut into strips - and of course, freshly cooked rice. Don't forget, you're the chef so you can put in whatever you want. There's few if any rules, other than what can be comfortably held in a roll.

So here comes the part where you'll think - hmm, I think I could do that. No need to roll anything... just put your nori flat in your hand (or on the table) and then grab a rice spatula and push the rice onto it. Then simply pile up whatever ingredients you want... ok, including the Nattō, and then when you're done, just grab one corner around (as you would if you were making an icecream cone).

And yes, you can most probably roll them better than this... but don't forget, this is for preparing and eating at the same time. The thing to concentrate on is that you don't want your ingredients falling all over the table. You don't need to get hung up on the perfect conical roll. Not unless you're preparing them earlier or inviting over the Queen. That's one reason why we never buy temaki zushi when going to a restaurant... for us, the fun is in the making!

 Bon appétit, and itadakimasu

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sapporo's White Water Hassamu Action

9th August, 2010 - It was a hot hot day. And back home it would have made for perfect beach weather. Being in Sapporo, that's not so easy. We did however have one alternative. The river. Hassamu river to be precise. Now T-chan had taken L-kun to the river before for some respite from the hot sultry summer weather back in June, further up stream along Hassamu River. I'd never experienced it, so Otousan took L-kun and I to have to some white water action. Sporting some sandals from Otousan we set out to brave the cool waters from the Hokkaido high-lands... and I couldn't wait.

The river is fairly accessible all along the banks, but like beaches, everyone has their favourite spots. T-chans's family used to bring her and her brother here when they were children. I wish I had some photos of that time. We had originally gone to the same spot as the June visit, but there'd been some heavy summer rain and the river was running too strong up there. This place was apparently safer for L-kun.
View Sapporo Map in a larger map

The river wouldn't win any scenic beauty awards - then again - much the same could be said of most Japanese rivers, especially those running through cities. They tend to be quite manufactured / concreted waterways. I guess here in Australia we'd tend to be making these river-sides into well manicured parklands - but I always get the feeling that Japan's rich soil is just too fertile for much in the way of controlled gardening. We're not that far from the wilds after all...

And one of the things you notice is the water regulators and salmon ladders as they're known. Salmon spawning season's from late August to October, and I have experienced it once before. Alas, it was too early in the year now to see Salmon making their way up river. I can't imagine going for a swim in the river then. Just a little creepy.... just my luck to come across the Jaws of the Salmon world. You do however see plenty of children fishing in the river, though their looking for finger-sized fish. Not fish that could take your finger.

And yes, L-kun enjoyed his second trip to Hassamu river (though I think he had more fun with Mummy). Still, when it was this hot (around 36 degC, with high humidity), any water is a relief. I know a lot of people come down to the rivers for picnics. Next time we're in Sapporo during summer, we'll have to make a day of it.

Until then... L-kun, just sit back and let the cool river of life's relexation flow over you...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sapporo's Gotenzan Park Playground - B&W Style

9th August, 2010 - A return to Gotenzan with Daddy. The thing about our holidays to Japan is that invariably, there's a part that I'm not there. That's generally not a problem, but it does mean that I tend to miss out on a lot of experiences. So there's always an opportunity to catch up when I arrive. Such a case was when we re-visited Gotenzan Kouen; which L-kun had visited with mummy last year. Last time was in colour... this time it's glorious B&W.

The park hadn't changed that much... yes, it was still dominated by the huge pyramidal edifice (Gotenzan). It wasn't such a fine day this time around though.... but at least it had Daddy. And Daddy really enjoyed sharing these play times with L-kun too.

Of course, L-kun is always willing to offer a helping hand. It's amazing to see how readily children offer their hands, both to help others, and to be helped. Where do we lose this skill?

I wonder what L-kun thinks of his parents taking countless photos? I know he loves sitting with Mummy and Daddy nowadays and looking through the photos, so I guess it's also worth it. I know he's one over-photographed child however.

One of the things you get used to in Japan, is that there's an over-abundance of interesting sculptural designs. Even in children's playgrounds. It's a good experience coming across some new weird and wonderful play equipment design, and definitely makes me feel a little disappointed when we go back to Adelaide, with our standard slippery slide, swings etc. Then again, I'm not sure kids really care...

And here's a cheeky T-chan shot.. The umbrella's there against the heat, not the threat of rain. It's hard to gain a feel in these pictures just how hot it was... but it would have been in the mid 30's with high humidity. Very strange for a Sapporo summer. Or so I'm told... 

Well, this has been a bit of a different post. I promise I won't do too many of these B&W specials... but every now and again doesn't hurt.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Drinks Anyone - Japanese Drink Vending Machines

8th August, 2010 -  It's time's like that you need a nice cold refreshing Coca Cola... (advertising commission is in the mail, I'm sure). Well, this is just a short post about another typical part of Japanese life. Vending machines. Especially drink vending machines. You can tell this photo was taken in summer as all of the drinks are cold (blue lights). One of the best part of Japanese vending machines are the hot (er - red light?) drinks. A great winter's treat to grab yourself a hot can of coffee from a vending machine as you're negotiating the snow outside. That's a long way away now however.

I'm constantly amazed how these vending machines are not vandalised.  Then again, there's very little apparent vandalism or graffiti in Japan in general. I'm also curious about just how ubiquitous these vending machines are. They're everywhere - in fact there's one sitting on the street about 50 m from T-chan's house in Sapporo. In the middle of nowhere. I can't even say I've ever seen anyone buy a drink from it, so I wonder why it's there. If nothing else, I suppose it's a tempting advertising method...

One of the other differences you can notice is the range of drinks: coffees (lots of different styles), teas, coke, sports drink, green teas, fruit juices (still or carbonated), and of course water. And all pretty cheap (from 120yen for the smaller drinks to about 150yen for the larger). And did I mention the beer vending machines? Hmmmm.... beer vending machines... it's a hard life.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sapporo At Night With Cars and Camera

8th August, 2010 - I went out for the evening, and took my camera along. The night was still quite hot, and for some reason I was attracted to the bright lights of the food places. Lots of food places. The Japanese tend to spend a lot of time eating away from home.

Anyway - where was I - that's right. Eating out. Well, of course that's a really bad segue to the photos of cars parked out the front of eateries. Not the most amazing photos, I know, and they had more to do with me seeing what my new camera would do than anything else. But it does allow me to talk about cars. Well, the one thing about car ownership in Japan is that it's actually quite cheap - certainly compared to the cost of buying a car here in Australia (Note - with the current high Aussie dollar, that's getting better). There are two exceptions to this - getting a drivers licence is hugely expensive for Japanese, and the life-time of cars is ridiculously short.

Japanese have to attend a driving school as a prerequisite of getting a licence, and this can be quite an expensive exercise (I've heard of fees exceeding 300,000yen). Amazingly expensive. Then of course there's always the tests. The written test sounds like it's just a formality (10 multiple choice questions), but the driving test is where it gets serious. From all accounts, it's common to take 2, 3 or 4 tests before passing - of course paying a fee each time. Of course, if you're a foreigner you can drive on an international licence for up to a year. You can "exchange" your normal licence - and if you come from Australia, UK, Canada, New Zealand or most of the European countries you can even avoid the written and driving tests. Sweet. If you're unlucky not to have lived in any of these countries, then sorry, you've got a more painful process to go through. There's some more info about the process - at least in Sapporo to be found here, and a couple more here and here (this is a good one).

The thing about cars in Japan is (apart from them tending to be quite boxy IMO) they tend to be relatively new. New cars are comparatively cheap, but second hand cars are VERY cheap. The reason is that as cars get older in Japan, they become harder/more expensive to register. They have to undergo regular (every  2 years) road fitness tests (called  Shaken) which gets stricter the older the car. That's why many people tend to off-load their cars once they get to around 60,000 km. And don't expect to get much when selling an older car... it's more likely you'll have to pay to get it scrapped/recycled. Coming from an Aussie experience, this is a very strange system. It does however have the advantage of ensuring much cleaner, cheaper, and safer cars. Of course, it also keeps the auto-industry cruising along very nicely, thank you.

By the way - you may notice in Japan that there are different coloured number-plates - yellow plates indicates a smaller category car (for commuting around town), and white plates which indicate larger (more expensive) cars. Costs for things invariably depend on whether it's a yellow or white plated car.

Just quickly - the other thing about driving in Japan - or at least Hokkaido - is that (1) speed restrictions seem to be not even a suggestion - most people seem to drive 20km/hr over here, (2) radar detectors are almost universal (hence point number 1), (3) people hardly ever parallel park - perhaps for efficiency, (4) when perpendicular parking it seems many more reverse as compared to front-first (which is more typical here in Australia), and finally (5) the exception to number 1 is that if you come across a police car, no one seems to dare to pass that police car - on even multiple lane roads - no matter how slow it's driving. This last point can be very frustrating!

In retrospect, I'm not exactly sure that this was such a good idea to be standing outside taking photos of people's cars. I suspect there may have been at least a few people thinking "What the hell is that silly gaijin doing taking photos of our cars. Let's go punch him in the head... after we finish this wonderful dinner... if he sticks around.... for another 20-30 minutes more."  Ok. That's a very un-Japanese way to think. But people should be a little careful to respect the privacy of others - and whilst being a foreigner in Japan does tend to lend you a lot of licence to do "strange things", it's not a right.