Episode 17: Pottering About
The Weekly Weird Product Award goes to: Calciumgurt!  It appears
use of the suffix "-gurt" is contagiousgurt.  Personallygurt,
I think the honor of being the first Great Gurt should go to Jim
Henson.  Remember the Swedish Chef on Muppets?  With classic lines
like "Hurdy-gurdy spaghetti-gurdy hurdy-gurt, bork bork bork" he
can still gurt with the best of them.  Gurt.

Gurts aside, it was yet another interesting weekend -- then again,
I honestly cannot recall the last time I had a boring weekend here.
They're probably banned by imperial decree.

To start things off, on Saturday it was time to do something we
(Jussi, Tomo & I, that is) had been planning to do for a long time,
namely visiting an eel (unagi) restaurant.  Eel is a summer delicacy
savored especially by men for its stamina-increasing properties,
but being slippery little fellows eel is always expensive.
On my flight to Saipan, I had sampled Northwest's idea of an unagi
lunch, which was three (3) finger-joint sized bits of something
vaguely fishy atop microwaved rice.  But what about the Real Thing?

To find out, we went to O-Edo, a restaurant that specializes in
unagi.  Their main building is in Nihombashi, but Tomoko used to
work at the Gaienmae branch, so we picked that instead.  Upon
arrival we were ushered into a 2-mat tatami alcove, sparsely decorated
with a single calligraphy scroll that even the native found
indecipherable.  The menu, written in almost the same style,
contained eel dishes ranging from a mere 2700 to over 9000 yen per
person.  (Guessing which one we picked is left to the reader.)
After half an hour's wait -- the eels are in tanks in the back and
they're decapitated, disemboweled and grilled on order -- the
meal arrived.  One entire eel atop a bed of rice, with homemade
pickles and homemade red miso soup.  And... wow.  An entirely new
taste and an entirely wonderful one.  Imagine the texture of the best
fish you've ever had, except it's so soft and smooth it almost melts
in your mouth, but without any fishy taste, cooked to perfection and
basted with sauce.  Chopstick-licking good.  I could get addicted
if it wasn't for the price.

To get there, go to Gaienmae station (Ginza-sen), take the exit
going north on Aoyama-doori (right side), walk two blocks up
and turn right (you should see a small "O-Edo" ad attached to
a lamppost), then walk ahead and you're there.  Closed Sundays and
generally a lunch place, although I think it's open evenings as well.
Oh, and for extra yucks, be sure to order the soup with an eel's
kimo in it.  I don't know what kimo is and I don't want to; suffice
it to say I think I know how H. R. Giger got his inspiration.

Taking the restaurant's name as an omen (Edo being Tokyo's name
in the pre-capital days), I decided today would be just the day to
take a loop through the most traditional chunk of Tokyo, the
Sendagi/Nezu/Yanaka quarter of Shitamachi.  Using Rick Kennedy's
A Walk Through Old Tokyo (on the net as well! check out
http://www.stonebridge.com/KENNEDY/laoldtokyo.html) as a guide, and
with my trusty digital camera and newly bought tripod in hand, I set

Island in Sudo-koen Park

Buckets at Keio-ji Temple

Floodlit Kannon statue
In some cities, like Jerusalem, you can easily imagine that you're
living in a different century.  In Japan, and especially in Tokyo,
it just doesn't work that way; you always have to dig up the hints
of old Tokyo from underneath the pachinko parlors, 7-Elevens and
apartment blocks.  But the Yanaka area does indeed contain a
heavy concentration of "traditional" stuff, all still in use by
the people who live there, and with nary a gaijin in sight.
Instead of duplicating Rick's excellent coverage, I'll just comment.
Sudo-koen is wonderful, even if the mosquitoes drove me nuts.
Kamekichi's tea is good and so are Goto's candies.  Miyako Senbei
is located in the best-hidden "shopping mall" I have ever seen
(were the other stores shuttered because it was Saturday, or because
they all went bankrupt for lack of customers who can actually find
the place?).  Imojin, formerly a "lovely old place", is now a
squeaky-clean new place but with quasi-traditional decor and
kick-ass azuki ice.  No, not ice cream, I mean ice as in a big
pile of thinly shaved ice.  The ignorant Westerner might object that
ice is tasteless, but this doesn't stop the Japanese from eating
tofu, bean sprouts, mochi, konnyaku or fugu, now does it?  Besides,
the real reason for eating shaved ice is that it does an amazingly
good job of cooling you down on a muggy summer day.  And Imojin
still does two balls of ice cream for 240 yen, the deal of the
century.  If you go left on Shinobazu-dori after Imojin, you'll
pass Nezu station and by using it you can save a dusty slog to
Ueno-koen.  The only annoying part of the day (aside from the
mosquitoes and the heat) was trying to go to Kappabashi-doori,
only to find that after 5 pm all the shops are closed.  Bastards.

I originally wanted to go to Nikko, but I'm going there in September
anyway so I decided to go for Hakone (Mt. Fuji!) instead.  But lo,
it was a slightly drizzly and largely overcast weekend, which would
have rendered Fuji-san invisible, so I stuck to pottering around
Tokyo. Having gotten in the mood at Saturday's unagi lunch, I again
splurged 1400 yen on a very un-Japanese treat, Victoria Station's
lunch deal of a meat pie and their justly famous salad bar.
They even had pickled beetroot, a Finnish staple but about the only
vegetable not usually pickled (or even seen) in Japan.  After
an excursion to Ginza's photo galleries and the Sony showroom,
which was blasting Godzilla trailers on every wide/flat/mini/
largescreen TV/HDTV VHS/Super8/DVD in the place, it was time to
engage in more manly pursuits and go pottery shopping.

Odd as it seems, the one thing besides tofu that's really, really
cheap in Japan is crockery, better known as plates, cups and all
that jazz.  (Finns will be amused to note that it's "shokki" in
Japanese.)  While it is of course entirely possible to spend your
inheritance on hand-crafted masterpieces (legends tell of a daimyo
who paid for a single tea ceremony cup with all the rice produced
in his lands that year), you can also do it my way:

White clay w/ bamboo pattern sake cups: 50 yen/piece
Matching sake tokkuri (pitcher): 210 yen
Pseudolacquered soup bowls: 100 yen/piece
Way funky deep-blue-with-ripples pickle dishes: 220 yen/piece
Bizarre little plate embossed with Entropy logos: 250 yen

In total, for a set of two, all of 1200 yen (50 FIM/9 USD),
less than what I paid for lunch.  Of course, these are straight from
the factory, but to the untrained eye, they look identical to the
handmade versions costing much more than 1200 yen a piece.
Every 100-yen shop in the land has a wide array, and if you explore
Kappabashi-dori you can find more exotic (and less cheezy) stuff
for only a bit more.  The most difficult part of shopping is the
variety, among other things I'm still looking for good tea cups
and rice bowls, because I won't buy it unless I fall in love the
instant I see it.

This week's photographs were collected during the aforementioned
loops.  You'll (hopefully?) notice some difference between this
week's and last week's pictures, both stylistically and technically.
My original reason for buying a camera was mainly to archive,
but after hours of poring through www.photo.net (gorgeous!) I
decided that digital or not, archive pictures gather dust when
even their taker is too bored to look at them, whereas pictures
as art may even interest the random stranger.  So I spent the
week studying and practicing EVs, white balance, picture
composition and other arcane arts.  Due to my camera's slow
exposures it was obvious that I needed to get a tripod to prevent
blur, so I spent a day reading about the relative merits of Bogen
pro tripods versus Slik portable monopods versus cheapo tripods,
and after two hours of poring in Yodobashi Camera's basement,
I walked out the proud owner of... a Sony video camera monopod,
which cost me 6000 yen to boot!?  Ee-yup.  Basically, what I wanted
was an affordable, sturdy, light and portable Thing that I could
prop my camera up against so my pictures wouldn't be blurry.
The Sony VCT-1MPH is made of heavy-duty steel and aluminum but
still weighs less than a kilo, extends to over 150 cm but retracts
down to 40 with convinient clip-style extension locks, and includes
a 180-degree tilt head plus two mini-legs for use as a 40-cm tripod.
For my purposes, it demolished the competition, and so far I've
had no complaints.  This weekend's pictures were (mostly) taken
using the tripod plus the tricks I had learned, the less than 10
pictures good enough to be put up are actually a small subset of
the 50+ pictures I took, often up to a half a dozen of the same
scene but experimenting with lighting levels etc.  The only thing
I want now is decent image processing software (my kingdom for
Photoshop).  But take a look and tell me what you think!

[Ed. These days I think they also suck.  I did my first halfway decent
work during week 19's northern Japan tour, so hang in there...]

And a final couch potato note.  I just spent an hour doing something
utterly amazing (for me, anyway): watching a soap opera.  Now,
usually I loathe soap operas, because the plot, dialogue, acting,
everything is terrible and yet you're supposed to take these
never-ending yarns seriously.  Evidently enough old grannies do to
make The Bold and the Beautiful the #1 ranked show in Finland, but
I just can't stomach the things... except here.  As usual, the
Japanese have imported a foreign concept and improved on it.
Correctly realizing that soap operas bear no relation to reality
anyway, in Japanese soap operas the acting is purposely overblown;
the odd part is that the actors manage to very realistically play
roles and situations that are utterly impossible in real life.  The
plot lines are standard soap opera material, women falling desperately
in love with their best friends' boyfriends etc at a rate of new twist
per 5 minutes, but every important scene is shown in slow motion with
everybody's facial expressions shown in detail ("Oh my God, it's HIM!"
"What? She likes HIM?" "Oh no! SHE is here and so is SHE!") with
plenty of bizarre lighting, camera angles and special effects.
Freed from the constraints of making Serious Drama, the shows
become lively and presumably hilarious (if I could only understand
what they're saying a bit better).  One typical scene that would
never fly in the States:

Girl 1, deeply in love with Guy after a one-night stand, bursts into
Guy's bedroom at night only to find him in bed with previous
girlfriend Girl 2.  All parties are astonished, finally Girl 1 asks
what on earth Guy thinks he's doing; Guy ponders for a moment and
replies: "Jaa...  sannin to suki?"  (Translation for the Japanese-
impaired: "Uhh... you like threesomes?")

Now go ahead, just try to imagine Ridge & co in that situation.
It just wouldn't work, but the Japanese pulled it off perfectly.
Even if they were boring enough to have the scene end by Girl 1
slapping Guy and getting thrown out, but even that was only because
it was required by the next plot twist.  But for the next J2J plot
twist, you'll just have to stay tuned.


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