Sunday, November 14, 2010

A new blog

I've started a new transportation blog for my ramblings about transportation-related stuff. 
it's here:

Public transit, traffic, highways, bicycles, whatever I feel like ranting or raving about at the moment.

enjoy if you will...


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Word of the Week

Blue Butterfly at the Morton Arboretum


Meaning "a disposition in favor of something" or "preference."

When I went to the Morton Arboretum with my family, I took photos which suggested an overwhelming predilection for nature photography.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Metra's Free Rides


Chicago's Metra commuter trains provide a vital service to the public and are an asset to the entire area. However, their ability to handle high capacities leaves something to be desired.
When Chicago's Metra commuter trains are at capacity or over (during Ravinia concerts, Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago, the recent Chicago Blackhawks celebration (429,000 people?), to name a few examples), the policy is to not charge the people that conductors cannot reach, which ends up being pretty much everyone. Those of you not familiar with the Metra system might not understand. If the average round-trip fare is $5, that's over $2.1 million for the Blackhawks event alone, if they collect all the fares. One Ravinia evening concert might overfill 8-10 trains round trip, at $5 per person, 200 people per train car, and 8 train cars, that's about $80,000, if they collect all the fares. There are Ravinia concerts all summer long.

A little background: Quaintly, in the Metra system, conductors still collect fares and hole-punch tickets by hand (no digital assistance, no automatic fare cards, etc.) while walking through the train trying to remember who they've charged, where they're getting on and off at, etc. You can board a train without a ticket and purchase one from the conductor when (if) he/she walks by and asks for your tickets. In some cases, this is your only option since there are no automated ticket purchasing machines, station houses have extremely limited hours, and many station houses are unmanned.

Metra's trains are bi-level, and have narrow aisles that make the task of ticket checking and collecting neither easy nor quick... fortunately, the assistant conductor doesn't have to go up to the 2nd level.

A recent example: My wife and I went to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at Ravinia on Saturday Aug. 28, 2010. The train we rode to Ravinia Park was packed (as were the 2 or 3 after us), and nobody was charged a dime. When we returned that night, the trains were even more packed, and they ran extra trains in order to meet the extraordinary demand (this happens regularly for Ravinia concerts, as the exact same thing happened to us 2 years ago when we went to see Feist on July 11, 2008). Once again, nobody was charged a dime in either direction. In fact, this doesn't just happen during special events. On Sunday Aug. 1, 2010 I took the train into the city. It wasn't particularly busy, but nobody in my train car was charged because the conductor never came by to check tickets.


Think about that.

When you take the CTA train or bus home after a Cubs game or after Lollapalooza, do they let you ride for free? No.
When you drive to the Taste of Chicago, and the Millennium Park garages are packed, do they just open the gates and let everyone park for free? No.

This is, in essence, what Metra is doing... whenever their trains are too full for the conductors to walk the aisle and collect fares.


Their system does not scale. It cannot handle high capacity. It's not the fault of the conductors, it's the system. The fare collection system must be updated, able to handle all capacities, especially at the high end. In a time when companies and families are tightening their belts and trying to run more efficiently, it is baffling why Metra would be allowed to continue to forego collecting fares during the very times when their revenue and profits would be highest. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that they are forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions... every year.

Metra needs to find a way to charge all of their customers, all of the time, ESPECIALLY during the times when the trains are the most packed. Private companies live and die by their highest volume days. However, by virtue of being a public entity, Metra doesn't seem to have to follow the same rules. But as a taxpayer, and a regular, avid Metra rider, I believe that this is unfair to the taxpayers of Illinois and unfair to other Metra riders who have to pay their fares.


Full disclosure: I love public transportation. I love trains. I love transit. I've been to Japan and South Korea. They charge all of their customers, all the time (unless the train is extremely, horribly late, in which case you can apply for a refund).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Homemade Pizza & More

Upon our return to the States, we decided to take advantage of the weather and make our own homemade grilled pizza -
- Pizza crust (available at our local Jewel-Osco supermarket, NOT the frozen kind)
- Fresh Mozzarella cheese (round, sliced)
- fresh herbs from the garden - basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc.
- fresh tomatoes from the garden (this is tomato season after all...)
- Red bell peppers
- Pizza 1 : Turkey pieces (pre-cooked, chopped small)
- Pizza 2 : Turkey sausage (pre-cooked, chopped small)
- artichoke hearts
- button mushrooms
- Pesto, olive oil
- Peachy Canyon Red Zinfandel (wine, very good)
- Yeti Imperial Stout (beer, not my favorite, but not bad)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Word of the Week...

Our extemporaneous dancing/jumping party in the Cherry Blossom park near the Fushinogawa.


Meaning improvised; done without preparation.

Merriam-Webster's definition:
1. a (1) : composed, performed, or uttered on the spur of the moment : impromptu
(2) : carefully prepared but delivered without notes or text

b: skilled at or given to extemporaneous utterance

c : happening suddenly and often unexpectedly and usually without clearly known causes or relationships

"a great deal of criminal and delinquent behavior is…extemporaneous — W. C. Reckless"

2 : provided, made, or put to use as an expedient : makeshift

ex·tem·po·ra·ne·ous·ly adverb

ex·tem·po·ra·ne·ous·ness noun

One of my students was inclined to give extemporaneous piano performances, though she often said she played "at random." At the time, I suggested she use "I played an improvised piano piece" (suggesting no prior preparation) but she could say: "I played an extemporaneous piano piece" if there were some preparation ahead of time...


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chicago Pizza

Here is a faux wedding photo that we had taken during a photo shoot a few years ago.
One in particular gives a very nice example of what Chicago-style deep dish pizza looks like:

And here are some of the more famous Chicago-Style Pizza restaurants:

If you ever visit Chicago and want to go on a guided tour of Chicago-style pizza restaurants, these folks have a nice tour package:

And this page has several downloadable audio tours of Chicago (including Japanese!):

Finally, here's what the Wikipedia community has to say about Chicago-style deep dish pizza:

Take care!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Footprints in Hawaii...

On our way back from Japan, we stopped in Hawaii. Staying in a hostel, which means we could stay there much longer, for much cheaper than would be possible in a regular hotel. :)

We did all regular tourist stuff near Honolulu, nothing fancy:

We visited Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona battleship memorial monument. Climbed up to the top of Diamond Head (not actually that exciting...). And we spent a lot of time on Waikiki Beach relaxing, watching a canoe race, enjoying 4th of July fireworks, tanning, boogie boarding and bodyboarding.

We also enjoyed some tasty meals, including the following one at the fancy pink hotel's restaurant, Azure.

On our second-to-last day, we managed to take the bus up to Shark's Cove for some snorkeling. The bus trip is really long (passes by the Dole Pineapple Plantation halfway through), so for anyone planning on doing this I'd highly recommend renting a car/motorbike, or just staying at a hotel/hostel on the north shore, far away from touristy Waikiki.

Next time, we'll have to go to Kawaii, Maui and the other islands.

I leave you with this photo, my homage to a very beautiful poem, which also follows:

Footprints in the Sand

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,

“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

Mary Stevenson, 1936

Monday, June 14, 2010

National bike to work week!

Yamaguchi, Japan makes it pretty easy to bike anyplace by providing covered bike parking.

At the community center where I teach class... it's a lifesaver on rainy Fridays. I have to bike on Fridays, so it's nice to know that I won't have to deal with a soaked bicycle at the end of the day. Just put on my rain coat, pop open my clear, see-through umbrella, and ride single-handed back to the office. (Also helps to have a wheel-friction-powered LED headlight, sturdy metal basket, splash guards, and built-in rear wheel lock as standard equipment on my inexpensive, but solidly-built grandma bike).

Covered bicycle parking outside the central post office...

Supermarket bicycle parking (right in front of the entrance), sharing the lot with cars (but the bicycles are much higher density).

Library bicycle (and scooter) parking.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rappers for sale..¥210

Whale meat for sale at our local supermarket, YouMe Town.

Rappers, a new Wrap-style sandwich...haha! silent W tripped someone up.

Neighbors out planting their rice field. Ain't springtime great?


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Revisiting Mt. Ishizuchi

I wonder why people are so enamored with climbing mountains. You go up only to come down again. Your muscles burn and your feet hurt. Before climbing Mt. Ishizuchi the second time around (we couldn't finish the first time due to time constraints) I kept joking that I wanted to conquer the mountain. But after passing through the torii marking the end of our climb I realized the reason why we climb: mountains help us conquer ourselves. Mountains give us a concrete way of overcoming our fears, our laziness, our desire for comfort and the desire to do a million things at once. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other, try not to fall, and tell yourself to just keep going.

Mt. Ishizuchi is the tallest mountain in western Japan and is located on the island of Shikoku. It's one of Japan's 7 holy mountains and the shrine at the top is accessible only by foot. The climb takes 6 hours (round-trip) at a moderate pace with a 45 minute break at the top. The most interesting features of the mountain, however, are the chains. There are 3 chains that "short-cut" the hiking path, as well as a bonus "Trial Chain" (which we climbed last time, discovering that it leads to a lonely peak, beautiful view, and another chain down). They range in length from 38-74 meters long. You don't have to be an experienced climber to do them, but you do need some faith in yourself. You can do it! This was definitely one of the best experiences we've had in Japan.

Brian on the 3rd set of chains, halfway through. I'm standing on a small ledge with one hand on the chains.

Here's a map I edited for English speakers (full size here):

The final chain leads directly to the small shrine on top of the mountain. You can then proceed to Tengu-dake, or Goblin-nose Point, the very distinctive tip of the mountain. Sadly when we went it was so foggy we could barely see in front of us so the tip was completely shrouded in clouds.

See? It was so cloudy! And yes, that's all I carried with me.

There's also a small restaurant there with cup noodles, water, snacks, trinkets, curry rice, toilets and a heater. The staff live up there! I wanted to ask how often they go down, but my Japanese isn't that good. I'm happy to report that they were open for service even on a Monday in off-season. You can sleep here for roughly $90 a night (per person), but it makes more sense to climb the mountain in 6 hours and go camp nearby at Furei No Sato which has big baths. Mmm....

The best part of the trip (other than the chains) was the people. The man who ran the parking lot chatted us up and gave us a banana (so sweet and random). Only one other couple was climbing that day and we talked with them several times on the trail and at the top, and they gave us candy!

Oh Japan, we're going to miss you so much.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Challenge to Democracy, 1944

Was looking at this NPR report today: The Creative Art Of Coping In Japanese Internment
by Susan Stamberg

and it linked to this video from 1944 (Government-produced film attempting to defend the massive internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.):


Monday, May 17, 2010


Our favorite restaurant in Ishigaki. Great food, great value, really great people!

A&W is a famous American root beer (soda) brand. They also run their own fast food joints, but these are not so common in America these days. They were more common in the 1950's or 60's I believe... back in the days of the soda fountain.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Sunshine Girl - Moumoon

First time I heard this song I fell in love with it. Second time, I wanted to dance. Third time, I finally asked someone who sings it.



Sunday, May 9, 2010

If you don't have anything nice to say....

Thumper the rabbit changed my life when I was a kid. His mother scolded him for bad mouthing something and made him recite, "If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all."

When we were leaving for Japan, so many people tried to give us advice about the food, the people and the culture. I was shocked when someone told me Japanese people would ignore it if someone tripped on the street because it would embarrass the 'trippee' further; that saving face was all-important.

Living here now I can't believe I listened to this person. What an absurd thing to say! First of all, it's a blatant stereotype, which I should have never believed. Secondly, it's a classic tale told in the West to make the East seem as foreign and opposite from us as possible. Here is some direct proof that you can't always believe what you hear:

  • A motorcyclist lost control and fell off her bike on a main road. No less than 3 groups of people stopped to pick up the bike, take care of her wounds and block traffic around her.
  • During a tea ceremony, my hosts gently corrected me every time I made a mistake instead of letting me err unknowingly.
  • A 70-year old lady repeatedly asked a man to sit down during Okinawa's Dragon Boat Races because he was blocking everyone's view. Very loudly I might add... lol. But she liked us because we instantly sat down when no one else did. She even loaned Brian her umbrella to block the sun and gave me a fan!
But the best story is from today. We went grocery shopping and while in the check-out line I asked Brian to grab an apple. The man in front heard us speaking English and as soon as B left started asking me to come closer to him in broken English. He then asked all sorts of strange questions about America like whether we drink black coffee or eat somethingmumblemumble. The lady bagging groceries must have seen my face (I was trying to be polite but probably looked really uncomfortable) so she intervened. She left her bagging post, came to where I was standing in line, and had me follow her to another register, which she opened. The line was short, so I know she did it for my sake.

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete." -Chimamanda Adichie

Same applies here. All the Japanese people I know would most definitely help someone who tripped on the street. But they would also manage to do so in a tactful and unembarrassing way.

If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all.


Friday, May 7, 2010


We purchased, for the ultra-low price of ¥100, a fabric shaver/depiller/lint remover. A "pill" is a little bunch of fabric that inevitably forms on synthetic clothing (and sweaters) after some time, typically from rubbing against other things. "Lint" is just general dust and whatnot that collects on clothes. This little battery-operated device is supposed to clean "pills" and "lint" from your clothes.

Boy does it ever!

Left side: depilled | Right side: untouched

It was quick and easy and there was no danger of hurting my pants, the depiller has no exposed blade. Best 100 yen I spent last month!


Friday, April 30, 2010

Shizenha Restaurant Obanzai

Mia (vegetarian) is overjoyed!

If you ever visit Kyoto, do not miss Shizenha Restaurant Obanzai... an all-vegetarian, all-scrumptiously-deliciously-fantastic (and I say that as a fairly avid meat-eater) buffet style ("Viking Style", as the Japanese would say) joint. Obanzai ryori, where this place gets it's name from, is the traditional Kyoto-style home-cooked cuisine... and one meal at this fine establishment gives you an extremely delicious impression of it on your taste-buds!!

Lunch (11am-2pm) 840 yen. Dinner (5-9pm, last order 8:30) 2100 yen. It's a short walk northwest of the Karasuma-oike train station.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Mini Mini Mini Mini

We saw this car today in our local grocery store parking lot. An original Mini complete with Rolling Stones stickers. It makes even little kei-cars look big!


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Missing L?

I'm pretty sure they meant "SPLASH"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Moco

There are two types of cars in Japan: regular cars and kei-cars. Essentially, reguluar cars include your standard Toyota, Honda, etc cars that you would see in the US with all the features like automatic windows, remote locks, etc. Kei-cars are cheaper cars with less features and much lower taxes. For example, our kei-car has only one reverse light and a visor only on the driver's side, but we pay only 20-50% the taxes of a regular car.

One of these kei-cars is the infamous Nissan Moco.

For those who speak Spanish, you already get the joke. :)

The word "moco" in Spanish means "booger" (the hard crusty version of 鼻水-hanamizu).

It even comes in moco colors - green, yellow and brown.

So cute.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Yamaguchi City does not have quite the same grocery food selection of say, Tokyo... In particular, cheese - not being a major part of the "normal" Japanese diet of miso soup, rice, fish, veggies, tofu, soy sauce, mirin, various kinds of seaweed, and more recently, meat (etc.), can be a challenge to locate.

However, through sheer force of will (in actually just going to each of the handful of supermarkets in town) we have managed to find and sample a decent number of Yamaguchi cheeses:

The funny thing is... the cheese here is not always what you'd expect...
(front to back, right to left)
Cheddar slices (a recent discovery), fine.
New Zealand Gouda, great!
American Cream Cheese, perfect.
Emmental Switzerland Swiss, fine for Mia.
Grated "Natural Cheese" (like mozzarella), good stuff.

BACK TWO: Cottage Cheese & Cottage Cheese? How do you have two different types of cheese named the same thing? So, as we discovered to our delight, the blue one is actually Feta (woohoo! and the photograph on the carton looks like Feta in a salad anyway), and to our dismay, the orange one is some sort of sour-tasting cream cheese-like concoction that is probably meant to go into cheesecake if the picture on this one is in any way accurate. Either way, neither of these cheeses was Cottage Cheese.

The last cheese (not pictured) was a small green carton labeled "Sour Cream" which got me real excited because when I saw it, I got an instant craving for it (having not had it in over a year). However, when I got it home and opened it, it turned out to be more like sour-tasting Philadelphia cream cheese (not creamy, not watery, not really sour cream if you ask me). I'll post a pic the next time I see it in the grocery store.

take care, and enjoy your cheese!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Red Quince "Knap Hill Scarlet" Flower in Kyoto

Red Quince "Knap Hill Scarlet" Flower in Kyoto
Originally uploaded by bderstine

Took this photo on our recent trip to Kyoto... there are more on my flickr page (just click the photo to see the rest!).



Friday, April 2, 2010

"You look hot"

At Chicago's 2008 Lollapalooza summer music festival. It was a hot day.

I was wearing a short-sleeved polo today, apparently a rather chilly spring day (10-14° C/50-60° F), which most of my students found rather surprising and brave of me. Some said I was "young" and "strong", implying that young folks like me have a different concept of weather than folks like them. However, one student in particular (a typical middle-aged or elderly Japanese mother or grandmother (somewhere between 35 and 65) who looks and dresses like she's in her late twenties) saw my outfit and said: "Eeeeehhhh?! (a typical Japanese expression of surprise, with rising inflection, sounding like a very long letter "a") You... look... hot."

Now, I'm pretty sure she meant something like: "Honorable teacher, you appear to be clothed for a day of warm weather." But Japanese-to-English translation being the difficult task that it is, what with English's rampant idioms/clichés/phrasal verbs/slang/irregular verbs/et al ... I totally understand her statement. However, there were a number of things that made her statement funny and interesting.

First of all, saying "you look hot" when I'm wearing a short-sleeved polo on a 'cold' day is a bit odd, because it implies that I'm showing physical signs of having a high body temperature (such as sweating, which I wasn't), even though I was under-dressed.
Therefore, "you look cold" makes more sense.

Secondly, "hot" has many different meanings in English, and in that context, this otherwise innocent "you look hot" statement becomes an instantly recognized compliment or come-on for native English speakers:

"You look hot." = "You look sexy/attractive/beautiful/pretty/handsome."

So the appropriate native response in this case would be "Thank you very much! or ... Domo Arigatou Gozaimas!"

Anyway, I spent the next several minutes explaining all the different meanings of 'hot' that I could think of... here's what I could recall from today:

Hot food = spicy food like the hottest curry in Tokyo.

Hot item = popular item like the hottest Christmas toys of 2009.

Hot person = popular person like Hollywood's hottest young stars of 2009.

Hot team = a team that has won all or many of their recent games, something also known as a 'hot streak'.

Athletes (especially basketball players) are sometimes described as having a 'hot hand' or 'being hot' when they score many points or baskets in a row. 'Hot hand' is also used to describe a gambler at the head of a craps table who is winning a lot of money.

Hotshot = someone who acts very confident or arrogant, see HotShots! (1991 movie spoof)

-Brian Sensei

Friday, March 26, 2010

"I play blog."

Yesterday I had a class with one of my bright, young students. He's 11 years old, loves table tennis and shogi (Japanese chess), is very respectful, has a great laugh, and speaks English pretty darn well for his age!!

We were reviewing adverbs of frequency when this little gem came up:

"Do you ever play computer?" he asked.
"No, I rarely play computer games," I responded, thinking he forgot the word 'games.'
"I always play computer. I play blogs," he replied with a smile.

I was going to correct him and say, "Ahhh, you mean you have a blog," but a funny thought struck me: maybe his way of saying it is better.

According to, "Play" can be defined as to engage in (a game, pastime, etc.) or to do or perform (in certain contexts).


Sakura 90

Sakura 90
Originally uploaded by bderstine

This photo has gotten quite a bit of views on my Flickr page. It is the 90-year-old Cherry Tree (Sakura-no Ki) in at Mukoshima Elementary School near where I play tennis every Sunday.

Simply beautiful.

Saturday, March 6, 2010



"Yatta", according to the internet, can be roughly translated as "I/We did it!" But my students seems to use it for everything from picking a good card in UNO to receiving an extra chocolate.

This song captures the joy and exuberance of that word (only partial sarcasm here... it is really happy!). I'm only sad to admit that I found out about it today and not 9 years ago.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


We visited Hakata last weekend to meet up with David, who was visiting from Korea.

We got sushi!

... and Takoyaki (balls of fried octopus) from a street vendor:

David loved them!

Then wandered through Canal City shopping mall and found a 50% off sale and 70% off sale (couldn't resist picking up some fall/spring sweaters with such a heavy discount)... and caught this water symphony show:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hark! Yamaguchi Brewery!

Discovery of the Week!

Chocolate Stout
(courtesy of a generous, thoughtful student and Izutsuya Department Store where she bought it)

The brewery... looks like it's in the German countryside!

Behind the brewery, a gorgeous waterfall and interesting Japanese rock carvings.

So, after the Chocolate Valentine's Beer post a few weeks ago, one of my students realized I had a thing for Chocolate Stouts, and brought me a new one from our local Izutsuya department store. It turns out that they beer had a website on the label, which in turn had a map to the brewery, which happened to be about a 10 minute drive from our apartment.

So now we can visit our own local European-style brewery/restaurant... plus an extremely scenic waterfall just behind it. They brew and serve 6 different beers: pilsner, stout, porter, pale ale, chocolate stout, and weiss. They also offer tasty, handmade pizzas, pastas, beef cutlets, a fountain of chocolate, etc.

So, next time I'm getting a 6-pack variety box.



Friday, February 19, 2010

Microwave Oven...

All of the buttons on our microwave are in Japanese! We don't know what most of them mean.

We got some local help figuring out what all of them mean!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Valentine's beer: Chocolate!

I just discovered this Sapporo-Royce Chocolate malt at Lawson's, one of our many "conbini"s (convenience stores). Delicious!

(Update: It's also available at grocery stores like The BIG.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dinner: Fresh Sand!

"Please make your best choice of fresh and delicious."
(says the small print on the packaging... the white text on the black background)

This sandwich is one of those more humorous examples of daily 'Japanese-English' that we encounter here in the fine land of Nihon. I like having an egg and tuna "sand" from time to time, I just wish they wouldn't use mayonnaise! At 185 yen (about $2) from convenience stores like Popular, 7-eleven or Lawson's, sandwiches aren't super cheap, but they're tasty and filling in a pinch between classes.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Easiest maki in the world

I make no claims to be a sushi expert or maki master. I just like eating it!!

"Maku" is the verb for 'roll' or 'coil' in Japanese. Let's take that to mean that there is no right or wrong way to make maki, so long as they're rolled.

1) Assemble ingredients:
  • rice (I'm lazy, so this is just regular rice, no vinegar/sake/mirin/etc. Still tastes good!)
  • nori (seaweed sheets - as you can see, mine are actually for hand rolls)
  • fillings (avocado, thinly sliced cucumber, kani kama a.k.a. fake crab, and cream cheese)
  • wasabi paste (not shown)
2) Put a little rice on the flat rice spoon and smooth it about 2-3 grains deep onto the nori sheet, which is sitting on the bamboo rolling mat. Leave a space at the end of the nori. I smashed my rice, which isn't aesthetically pleasing, but it stays in place.

3) Place fillings at the edge of the rice adjacent to the blank space. Don't cover more than 50% of the rice, otherwise it won't close!

4) Dab some wasabi on the end if you dare.

5) Wrap the goodies with the blank nori edge using the bamboo mat to grab the lump and make it round.

6) Open the mat and re-adjust the maki towards the end of the mat closest to you again.

7) Finish rolling the maki until all the nori is incorporated. Squeeze it gently and try to make that round shape again.

8) You can now cut the rolls into thin, bite-sized rounds with a sharp, slightly wet blade (so it doesn't stick to the rice), but remember I'm lazy, so I just eat them!

I know full well that this isn't the "correct" way to make maki. Usually you have to take the freshly cooked rice, mix it with the perfect amount of vinegar, etc and special stirring techniques, but I think that scares people away from just making the things. Plus, I like the taste of plain rice better. Most people use too much vinegar and then you can't even taste the fillings or fish.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thailand - Jungle Fever

After the madness that is Bangkok, we flew back to Phuket and took the 3-4 hour bus ride to Khao Sok. It's not on the coast, but rather is characterized by its rain forest, abundant wildlife and beautiful flora. We stayed 3 nights in the extremely cute Our Jungle House resort in one (well, two actually) of their open-air tree-houses on the river.

Our tree-house! No bats as one of the reviewers claimed. I was actually a bit disappointed :(

The only bummer was that the website claimed we would wake up to the call of the gibbons, but never heard any. We did however see a family of 7-8 monkeys playing on the cliff across the river from our balcony each afternoon.

Go monkey go!

Our feet still hurt from all the sightseeing in Bangkok, so we spent the first day relaxing in the river, eating delicious food from the outdoor hotel restaurant, and reading books from their small library (I gobbled up The Lost Book of Salem). Our first full day started with an early canoe trip on the river. Even though we weren't allowed to paddle ourselves, we saw plenty of kingfishers, a couple large snakes including a python sleeping in a tree, a family of monkeys, a few large lizards, and plenty of beautiful scenery.

A super enhanced picture of a kingfisher. These guys were hard to photograph!

That afternoon was one of the highlights of our trip: an elephant ride! It was a leisurely hour and a half on the supremely cute Saonui (which means "Big Sister" in Thai). We got on the rather uncomfortable metal seat (why don't they use wicker seats?) from a platform, adjusted ourselves to the back-and-forth swaying on the elephant's giant plodding feet, and got a ride through the rain forest to a small waterfall where Saonui got a 15 minute break. On the way back we took turns sitting on her neck, which was far more comfortable and easy to balance than the seat. Legs tucked behind her warm ears, hands on her spiky haired head and bum resting easily on her fleshy neck, it was a lot of fun! After the ride we got to feed her some bananas which she greedily accepted before she went off for another ride. I'm happy to report that our mahout (elephant trainer) never hit Saonui. When she occasionally stopped, he simply said, "Ehh?" to her and she would giddy-up to her place behind the lead elephant.

All smiles on Saonui


The next day was quite a workout. Khao Sok is famous for the giant Rafflesia flower which is very rare and blooms only for 3-4 days before decaying entirely. Only a few places in the world have this flower, and Khao Sok with one of the largest known populations of it had only 11 known flowers this year (though this is significantly more than the 6 or so a year only 10 years ago). It's a parasitic flower with no roots, stems or leaves of its own, and seems to pollinate by air, which seems horribly difficult since there are so few and they are often situated rather far form each other. A bud is the size of a football, and a full-grown flower can reach 110 cm, though most are around 50-60 cm. Our hike was 2 km, 90% of which was UP a hill. Took about 1.5 hours. But the reward was several buds, a dead flower, a half open bud, and a gorgeous 55 cm flower. (Just a note: We were extremely careful about not touching the flower or it's host).

Yum. Don't worry, it's too stinky to take a bite.

Sweaty and happy with the Rafflesia

If you ever get a chance, visit Khao Sok! It's gorgeous.

Travel tip: If you go to Khao Sok from Phuket Airport, take the airport bus south a little bit and tell the driver you want to get off at the bus stop on highway 402 (main road) to catch a bus to Khao Sok headed for Surat Thani. This saves you an hour of traveling in the wrong direction to get to the main bus station in Phuket Town, only to drive another hour back to where you started (near the airport). The bus stop on 402 is next to a Wat guarded by two gaudily painted statues that are nearly as tall as the pedestrian overpass next to them. We waited 45 minutes for our bus towards Surat Thani, which eventually dropped us off for another bus to take us to Khao Sok, and it cost maybe $8-9 total per person.

Bird of Paradise growing wild

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thailand - The Bangkok experience

We took the long way to Thailand. The very very long way. Flights (and trains to the airport) in Japan are expensive, so instead, we flew for about 1/2 the cost from Korea using Malaysia Airlines. Sure it took a couple extra days to get to our final destination, but we got to see friends in Korea on the way, so it was worth it.

(side note: Malaysia Airlines is amazing. Best airline food I've had, best service, best outfits, and very comfortable. They routed us through Kuala Lumpur actually, and since we booked 6 months in advance, there was (of course) a schedule change, so they ended up paying for one night's stay for us in KL. Fun!)

In Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown with the first of many many coconuts.

After KL, we flew into Phuket airport and hopped right onto the local, cheap but good Nok Airways to Bangkok for a 3-day stay.

Arrival at Phuket Airport.

Nok Airlines.

We arrived at our super friendly, cute, and highly-recommended hostel, Niras Bankoc... after getting scammed by the taxicab driver (FYI: always pay the tolls yourself when the cab arrives at the toll booth, because you pay them in the end anyway, and if you wait to the end of the trip then the taxi driver might lie and try to confuse you about the total cab fare and cause a scene).
Anyway, Niras Bankoc hostel: Highly recommended, once again. Only a 20 minute walk from the "lively" Khao San Road (read: full of foreigners, street vendors trying to distract you with green laser beams and sell you something and random noisy chaos), and 20 minutes walk in another direction from all the main Wats (Buddhist temples), it was perfect. At one point, no less than 9 Americans teaching English in Japan were in the hostel lobby, which is hilarious considering the hotel only has 7 rooms (some of which are dorms).

DAY 1: Shopping Day
The first full day we spent shopping, since Bangkok is the place to do it. On advice from our hotel and our guide book, we went to MBK, a 7-floor mall with approximately a bazillion independent shops selling everything from electronics to clothes to food to decor (many of them selling the exact same thing at different prices). And all prices are highly negotiable.

MBK and traffic.

A light dinner that night was at the infamous Chote Chitr. While not as hard to find as everyone says, the prices appear to have tripled since it acquired fame from a New Yorker article. It was empty when we arrived at 8pm, but that may have been due to our late night eating habits (or other foreigners' later night drinking habits. We had the banana flower salad (amazing) and some stir fried veggies. We decided that more filling things could be eaten at other, cheaper places.

We spent that evening wandering Khao San Road, eating in the street stalls, people-watching the other foreigners, and doing some more shopping. In the process, we discovered that you could buy many of the same things that were available at MBK but the starting and final (after negotiation) prices would be significantly lower on Khao San Road. We also got a 1 hour, full-body (naked!) oil massage for only 200 baht a person, which is a little less than $6. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this and got massages all three nights in Bangkok, twice at the fabulous Joe's House, located on a smaller street parallel to Khao San Rd. Truly, truly... Heaven.

DAY 2: Sightseeing Day (plus Christmas Eve)
The second full day was crazy hectic, but fun. We managed to visit the major Wats in Bangkok: Wat Sraket, Golden Mount, Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Kaew- home of the 'Emerald' Buddha, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Phra Chetuphon - home of the 46m Reclining Buddha.

At Wat Pho/Grand Palace

Mia and the Emerald (but really Jade) Buddha

With the 46m Reclining Buddha.

Incredible Christmas Eve dinner view at Deck restaurant.

We ended our stay in Bangkok by going to a lady-boy cabaret show at Calypso Cabaret.

Calypso Cabaret

Next: Khao Sok National Park, and our Thailand
jungle adventuring.