Seven hours and counting

So 2003 is crawling closer, kind of like a flying cockroach that hasn't yet screwed up its courage to take that first leap. Yet again I'm in a net cafe defined by one of the more useful though sadly less colorful four-letter words in the English language, that word being "free." It's free to sit and type and lean back in the plush naugahyde couches, if you're lucky to get a couch seat instead of a trendily uncomfortable blond-wood and aluminum chair. Now that I think about it, and the Japanese obsession with comfort, not that I'm complaining, mind you, the couch is more likely to be leather rather than the hide of some poor deceased Nauga. So today was spent biking around my new digs, which include a Gelato shop (didn't try it - yet,) a new and used English bookstore that accepts trades - so it'll be easy for me to get my literary fix - called Good Day Books (closed for the holiday), an American comic book store in nearby Shibuya (don't have the cash to buy anything) and a ramen shop in Ebisu. Now, there are probably dozens of ramen shops in Ebisu. "The Japanese are obsessed with ramen," said a Japanese-American friend who was in town to visit her family for the holidays and generously spared a couple hours for me. This particular shop was not particularly expensive and had a good 20 minute wait for a seat, even at two in the afternoon. My friend claims it's nationally-renowned, and after inhaling one of their humongous noodle bowls topped with mouth-meltingly marinated pork and bamboo shoots, and half a plate of gyoza - fried dumplings, I'm inclined to agree. Ramen is extremely popular around New Year's because the long noodles are supposed to be good luck for the long year ahead. Something like that. If traditions always taste this good, I'm hard-pressed to disagree. Another New Year's tradition in Japan is to watch the sunrise on January 1. I'll talk about how it actually was tomorrow, but I've pulled enough all-nighters, from both my school days and drinking nights, to know that for those few seconds when the sun peeks over the horizon, before it blinds you but just as it sprinkles enough light around to give even the shadows a tinge of yellow-gold, that this is another tradition that's worth carrying home. Many people head out to Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, to watch the sunrise over the beach. Although the trains run all night long, it's a shlep and a half, so I'll be watching the first sunrise from a hilltop in Harajuku. With much insight, my friend pointed out that although Harajuku is ground zero for teenage counter-culture in Tokyo, without fail the freaks and the geeks are squished in with everyone else to see that first dawn. I'll let you know how it goes.

A typical conversation when looking for an elusive shop

Me: "Sumimasen, do you speak English?" It's my standard opener, sadly, because the sieve that sits where my brain should be refuses to retain any of the 362 and a half useful phrases I've committed to memory. Knowledgable Japanese Information Booth Worker: "No." Meanwhile, his head is nodding in the afirmative. Me: "Can you give me directions to 'Good Day Books'?" KJIBW: "'Good Day Books'? Yes. Turn right and at the first lights, turn right. It's a few blocks on the right." Me: "Hai. Arigato gozaimasu." KJIBW: "You're welcome."

The Connection

I should be getting ADSL at home in the next few weeks, meaning no more twiddling away my time at a 'Net cafe. But until NTT, the Japanese phone company, and Yahoo! Broadband get their acts together, I'm using a 'Net cafe in the trendy Harajuku area, an easy bike ride or walk from Hiroo. Unremarkable, yes, except that it's utterly, completely, without a scintilla of doubt or even a hidden services fee, FREE. No having to flirt (yeah, yeah, twist my arm) with the cute woman behind the counter to get a discount, no running around sneaking 100 yen off coupons out of magazines. The only problem is that it's upstairs from a Starbucks. Oh, the horror.

Living la vida Tokyo

Living in Tokyo - I mean having an address that is in Tokyo, as opposed to being in some life-forsaken suburban wasteland where the most exciting thing is a 350 yen carafe of white wine at the nearby chain "Italian" restaurant - is great. I live with a lot of people. There are more than a dozen rooms in the house where I live, which sounds horribly crowded. So far, there haven't been any major issues. The people are reasonably friendly, and have the courtesy to not bug me when my door is shut. There's a mix of gaijin, which I also expected: German women, Brazilian men, a handful of Americans, both genders. The food in Hiroo, one of the ritziest neighborhoods in Tokyo, would be expensive if I went to the international supermarket that's so close I can practically pee on it from my balcony. But since I do most of my food shopping at little streetside markets, I doubt I'm spending any more than I did in Ageo. It means going to four different nearby stores instead of one, but that minor inconvenience is beneficial: I feel like I'm already becoming part of the community here. That's the other nice thing about where I live. It feels more like The Village, or maybe San Francisco's Inner Sunset, than the Village People. People work, eat, sleep and are generally friendlier than they were in Ageo. It's more likely, though, that I was a city-kid crammed into the boring nothingness of the 'burbs.

M-I-Y-A-Z-A-K-I

That, my friends, is how you spell "cool" in Japanese. Hayao Miyazaki is the world-renowned director of some of the best movies ever. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Nausicca, The Castle of Cogliostro... I could go on and on, but instead I'll just point you to the IMDB where you can look up these on your own. Now, some of you may scoff because the movies that Miyazaki makes are of the animated variety. "They're just cartoons," you say. "They're for kids. They're not real movies." If you're one of those people, I'd suggest you just stop reading now and go crawl under whatever rock it was you'd been using for a roof. You just don't get it, and probably never will. According to this Miyazaki fan/news site, Miyazaki's next film will be an adaptation of Dianne Wynne Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle." Jones is an author who writes children's books much in the same way that Miyazaki makes cartoons for kids. In other words, both are damn good and are layered enough for adults to enjoy, but without going over the heads of the children they're aimed at. (I don't remember if I ever finished "Howl's." I was leaving Boston at the time I read it, and I can't properly remember the ending, so it's quite likely that I didn't get around to finishing it. But what I remember from the beginning was really, really good.) So, one more time: Miyazaki's next movie will be an adaptation of Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle." That's just so damn cool.

I’d love to tell you all about Hiroo

...but I haven't really been there much these past few days. If anyone wants my new address, you know how to reach me.

Ovens are for the weak

Rice Cooker Banana Almond Chocolate Cake The rice cooker is a necessity, since ovens aren't so common here in the Land of the Rising Cake Mix. - one (1) box of chocolate cake mix - three (3) ripe bananas - three (3) eggs - one (1) rice cooker - one (1) mixing bowl - 1/4 (one-quarter) cup chopped almonds - some oil (I used about 1/8 (one-eighth) cup) - a certain quantity of water which I eyeballed since I can't read Japanese well enough yet to figure out exactly how much water the mix directions said I was supposed to use. The batter should be amply thick, although looser than wet concrete. 1. Prepare the chocolate cake mix in the mixing bowl according to the directions on the box. (You can also make the cake batter from scratch, but I found this to not work as well. Your mileage may vary.) Do not prepare the cake mix in the rice cooker, it'll wreck the non-stick surface of the cooker. 2. Mash the bananas and add them and the almonds to the batter. 3. Pour the mix into the rice cooker. At the end of the cooking cycle, check the cake with a toothpick. Start another cook cycle if the cake isn't ready. Continue until the toothpick can be pulled out cleanly. 4. Take the cake out and let it cool. 5. Enjoy. Or if it turns out badly, it makes a good paperweight.

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