Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Stoves

Boys huddled around the stove

In the coldest depths of winter, the temperature often drops to near zero. With no central heating in Japanese schools, the hallways are so cold that the students can see their breath, puffing out like escaping spirits. You can hear people all around you greeting each other, not by saying “hello,” but with a shivering “samui!” “It’s cooold!”

Obviously students can’t be expected to learn in such a frigid environment. That’s why at the beginning of December of every year, Japanese schools mark the beginning of a new season by wheeling in the stoves.

A “stove,” as the Japanese call it, is actually a kerosene heater. Most people have small ones in their homes, and the ones in a classroom are about the size of a large stereo speaker. When the day begins, the first student in the classroom inevitably starts to whine about the cold and tries to wheedle the teacher into turning the stove on. The teacher, being just as cold as everyone else, is no doubt happy to oblige.

The stove takes about two minutes to start up. During that time, the students huddle around with bated breath, like ice fishermen around the hole, praying for their lines to start dancing. In this case, it’s the dancing flame of the stove they’re waiting for, and when they hear the electrical buzzing that precedes the heavenly “poof!” of fire, you can almost feel the sigh of relief around the classroom.

Minutes later, the classroom is toasty. During lunch breaks, the halls are only filled with the brave and the active. Everyone else huddles around the stoves, like modern-day campfires. They sometimes even try to steal a moment in front of the fire during class time, until the teacher catches them and shoos them back to their desks.

Sometimes the stoves malfunction, sending out a creeping cloud of foul-smelling smoke. The smoke quickly engulfs the front of the classroom, and the students who were once anxious for their heat are now begging the teacher to open the windows and doors to get the smell out. Moments later, the smoke will dissipate and the students will once again bask in the warm glow of the flame.

But no season lasts forever. Come March, the frigid cold of winter will wane. And as the final days of the Japanese school year ebb away, the teachers begin their annual ritual of wheeling the stoves back to their storeroom. There the stoves begin their hibernation, waiting for another season to bathe the students in their warmth.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

An interesting juxtaposition


It's a little tough to see in this picture, but the green billboard in the foreground gives directions to Seitoku High School, which translates to "Holy Morality." I'm pretty sure it's actually a Christian-afilliated school.

In the background is a pachinko parlour, which just happens to be part of a multi-billion-yen per year gambling industry with alleged ties to the Yakuza and the Stalinist regime in North Korea.

I leave you to see the irony in this picture.

A classic Japanese-style house

Japanese-style house
I always enjoy seeing these kinds of houses around. Especially since they're becoming fewer and farther-between these days.

The Cat Burglar's House

Ugly Cat burglar's house
Just on the corner from my place is, without a doubt, one of the ugliest houses I've ever seen. And word around the campfire is that it was actually built that way by a professional cat burglar. Apparently, he wanted a house that nobody could break into. And being a professional himself, I guess he would know what that would entail.

Ugly Cat burglar's house

The entire house is made of concrete, making it impossible to scale. The windows are also mere slivers in the facade, scattered higgledy-piggledy along the outer walls, and cut just big enough to let in the odd beam of light and nothing (read: no-one) else.

Ugly Cat burglar's house

It even has a concrete wall around it, and the only way in through the back is via a gate that's only about two metres tall. I guess functionality is more important that asthetics to some people.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Two Okonomiyaki

When most people think of Japanese food, sushi is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Those who are a bit better versed in Japanese cuisine might mention tempura, and the more intrepid might even be able to tell soba from udon.

But unless you’ve actually been to Japan, chances are you’ve missed out on one of Japan’s tastiest, most versatile, and most fun types of food: Okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki literally means “fry what you like.” It’s actually a pancake of sorts, though not the kind you’d eat for breakfast. Just like all pizzas start with crust, sauce, and cheese, okonomiyaki starts with batter, shredded cabbage, and pickled ginger. From there, you can add all manner of extras, from something simple like tender, paper-thin morsels of beef, to the more exotic combinations like cheese and lotus root.

My favorite okonomiyaki restaurant is called “Aoi.” As you climb the long, narrow staircase, you are drawn in by a festive sounds of boisterous laughter mixed with the sizzling delights to come.

Other customers at the okonomiyaki shop

This particular shop is owned by a former record company executive. When he got tired of the 9 to 5 grind that his life had become, he convinced his wife to let him remodel her little okonomiyaki shop and manage it with her.

The rock-lined pathway at the Okonomiyaki shop

Once inside, you walk along pebbled walkways large, flat stepping stones; the setting is almost Zen-like, as it leads to sleek, griddle-topped tables nestled among straw tatami mats. You take your shoes off when you get to your seat, and sit on the mat, while your feet dangle under the griddle.

Singer pix at the Okonomiyaki shop

The walls all around are festooned with autographed photos of Japanese singers of Enka, or
pseudo-traditional pop music.

Beer at the okonomiyaki shop

But even the best décor means nothing if the food is not up to par. And in this case, it is and then some. My friend and I started our meal off with an ice-cold beer. It arrived with a small dish of prickly-hot kimchi-pickled cucumbers to whet the appetite.

Okonomiyaki Batter 2

We then ordered our food, and the cute, chirpy waitress clicked on the griddle before scuttling off to take our order to the kitchen. Moments later, our orders arrived in small clay pots with a spoon to stir it up with.

Sizzling Okonomiyaki

The best part of okonomiyaki is that you get to cook it yourself. You start by brushing a light layer of oil over the griddle, while someone else mixes up the batter. Then, just like a pancake, you drop it on the griddle.

The real fun comes when you try and flip the thing over. It takes experience to do it right. There are always first-timers trying to flip one, only to have the whole thing break apart like some child’s doughy concoction. But that’s half the fun: even if you’re no master, it’s still fun to take a crack at flipping these things over.

The finished product

Once it’s cooked through, you chop it up into slices like a pizza, and serve it up, drizzled with a thick, dark, sweet and tangy sauce. Other toppings include mayonnaise, flakes of nori seaweed, and dried shaved katsuo fish flakes.

But one of the best parts about okonomiyaki is the price. My friend and I had two, along with a beer each, and the bill came to just under 3000 yen, or about $30. We paid our bill and said goodbye as we headed down the stairs, filled with both great food and a great experience.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Nissin noodle factory

There's a Nissin Cup o' Noodle factory up the road from my place. I always get a kick out of seeing the steam vent decorated like a cup of instant noodles.