Thursday, January 31, 2008

18 Museums Down, 30 Something to go.

In order from shameful to enlightening.

The Ancient Orient Museum.
Sunshine City Bunka Kaikan 7F 3-1-4 Higashi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
+81 (0)3 3989 3491

This place was in the Sunshine City Building, which is known by my students to house a gyoza theme park. Yeah, a dumpling fun park. A pot sticker playground. Expectations weren't too high. The museum here would only appeal to hardcore fans of near east artifacts who read Japanese.

Highlight? A Rosetta Stone!

Geidai Museum
The University Art Museum, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music
12-8 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110-8714, Japan
TEL. +81-50-5525-2200(central)

It was closed. But there was some art outside.

There were some NSFW bits down below too. With massive veins.

National Museum of Modern Art, Craft Gallery
1-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-0091

Tiny exhibit with just a couple rooms. Focused on a few Japanese modern craft artists. There was one museum lady for every 3 pieces it seemed. One of them yelled at me for taking photos. Regardless, it was an interesting place.

Highlight? Getting yelled at for this shot.

National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
3-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

It's just down the street from the craft place. You can get a good idea of the Japanese contemporary art movement from around 1900 on.

Highlight? The temporary exhibit had a whole section where the art was supposed to make you dizzy.

National Museum of Nature and Science
7-20 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-8718

Sure are a lot of science museums in Tokyo. This one has a lot of natural history. No English, but its more of a visual thing here. The old time-y seismographs are great. Old scientific equipment so often was covered with artistic touches. There was a temporary robot exhibit, but it was a 2 hour wait to see them. Does Japan like robots?

Ueno Zoo
Address: Ueno Zoo, 9-83, Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-8711, Japan
Phone: 03-3828-5171

Nice to see a zoo that isn't as sad as the one in Beijing. The Ueno Zoo is big, big enough to warrant a monorail connecting the two sides. Give it it's own day when you go. Unfortunately, 2 hours before closing was just enough time to see the monkeys and panda.

Highlight? Pandas eating bamboo and like 200 camera otakus taking photos.

International Library of Children's Literature
12-49 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0007 Japan

Really really cool. If you like children's books from around the world. Which I do. Also, the building looks like it was retrofitted by the architect Tadao Ando, though I'm not sure if it is. You can wander around inside and look at old and new picture books. There is a museum on the top floor, free, that had work from the Czech Republic.

Strange thing though, for a children's library, there was nowhere that kids could sit and have fun reading. It felt like a university research library.

Opera City Shinjuku

There was an exhibit called "Ha, Ha! Your Mushrooms Have Gone" It was mushrooms hooked up to electronics which played different sin waves when you got near. In addition, there were about 30 other exhibits just as random as this. Holy shit, it was good. Almost everything was interactive and technology based.

And totally devoid of people. I had 3 museum girls practice their English by trying to explain everything to me. The highlight was when there was one room that would bring up web pages based on you jumping around in front of strange oscilloscope image. One of the girls started doing some crazy para para dance shit. She was way too into it.

SC!ENCE Museum

I said lamest to best, yeah? Well this one was fan-fucking-tastic. 5 floors, each with 5 sections, for a total of over 20 different completely interactive hands on science exhibits. For kids. The way it should be. I volunteered at a place called the Exploratorium, in San Francisco, and I fully appreciate this type of place. Inspiring kids to be interested in how things work, letting them touch machines that look very very dangerous, and making it all fun as hell. This is good.

There were about a million kids running around. This would be a fun place to bring a date. Yeah, using pulleys to lift cars and seeing a video about robots isn't too romantic... but it's fun dammit!

Highlight? Everything!

Asakura Choso Museum

7-18-10 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0001
Phone: 03-3821-4549

Considered the father of modern sculpting technique in Japan, Asakura Fumio built his residence and studio here. It is a wonderful example of an older Japanese home. The inner courtyard is a pond and garden fed by a natural spring. The orchid room also houses many of his cat sculptures, a motif he was fond of. And the second story entertaining room is made of wood from throughout Japan. Every detail is accounted for.

You'll only be here about 30 minutes, but it's relaxing and the neighborhood is very historic. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Let the Ramen Hunt Begin!

Around 100 years ago, Chinese noodles became popular in Japan. But to still consider ramen as Chinese food would be plain wrong. It's a part of Japan, a downright obsession in some sense of the word. It morphed from simple noodle soup to gourmet cuisine. Local varieties receive cult followings. We're talking Philly Cheese Steak and Chicago Pizza loyalties and analysis. A popular ramen shop can have an hour wait just to sit down.

Get some comfortable shoes and make sure you bring a book.

Ramen is NOT the instant noodles you ate daily in college. That's like comparing pasta at a restaurant on the coast of Napoli to Chef Boyardee.

The ramen "experience" has 3 factors... well maybe 4. But the 3 are the noodle, the soup, and the toppings.
  • Noodles can be thick like udon or thin like vermicelli. Curly or straight. Firm or soft. The thick ones tend to sit heavy. Don't time it so that after eating heavy ramen you have to run to catch a train to the unemployment office. It's not fun.
  • The soup for ramen can take days to make. Shio (塩) is a light salt broth. It's clear and usually made from chicken and vegetables. Shoyu (醤油) is a little less light, with soy sauce. Tonkotsu (豚骨) is the crazy stuff. It's like drinking pork. Liquid gold to some, one way ticket to religious hell for others. The last main category of soup is miso (味噌), it adds fermented soy paste to the broth. Often miso is the most flavorful.
  • Toppings are usually a slice of pork, menma which are bamboo shoots, and green onion. Be prepared, if you go to the cult status shops, for some different toppings. Sprouts, eggs, fish eggs, meatballs, seaweed.... expect anything.
  • Whats the 4th aspect of good ramen? I think it's the atmosphere. Waiting in line with excited customers, the shout of the entire staff when you enter, the seriousness of the shop master as he creates his masterpiece... it all helps.
I've been to a few really good ramen shops in Japan. That's about to change. I stumbled on this list:

The top 30 ramen restaurants in the country. Turns out over half are in the Tokyo area, even one is in Kawagoe. So I've made it a mission to visit all that I can.

Maybe I need a job.

Anyways, I've been knocking numbers off the list, navigating to obscure stations on the Tokyo Metro, and freezing my ass off in line. For now, here's some reviews of old places I went to in the past. None of these are on the "top 30".

Manbaken means lucky ticket. Like at the track. Horses and what not. Somehow this relates to ramen. This place was near Meguro station and recommended by a police officer. Here's a tip, just go to the Koban, police station, and ask where a good ramen shop is. Is this like asking an American cop about donuts? Maybe, but they always seem to know.

Manbaken was fairly empty. The ramen was Tokyo style I think, which is a shoyu soup made with fish bones. All in all this shop was just so-so. Lots of other goodies on the menu, like fried rice and meat dishes. Many ramen shops have only 3 or 4 menu items. But you go to ramen shops to eat ramen, don't you?

The Ramen Museum in Yokohama. I wrote about this place when I went about a year ago. There are about 15 different restaurants from all over Japan here. You choose one and enjoy something that you couldn't get without traveling for a day or two. I had Kyushu style ramen with was loaded with garlic. It was tasty.

Skip this place. I know I said it was tasty. Actually it was super good, but I was a bit hung over at the time. Garlic and thick pork broth are great hang over food. But this place is just too far away to bother with. There are so many superior ramen shops throughout Tokyo. Keep posted, I'll be writing about the good ones in the near future.

The Ramen Museum would have been a worthy experience if you could sample 5 or 6 types of ramen. But you can only get 1 bowl, unless you are Kobayashi then 1 is enough.

Harukiya in Ogikubo. Thats where I live! Well not in the store but near. Ogikubo is the birthplace of Tokyo style ramen, and Harukiya is the place to go. I tucked in to some wantanmen, ramen with won tons. Great broth, really strong.

Lastly is Ramen Jiro. After waiting 45 minutes, you are presented with a limited menu. Actually, it's all the same, but you can choose omori, big size, and more pork. Don't get anything but the base size and pork level. Seriously. Look at the customers inside. Most don't even finish. This is some brutal stuff.

One thing about Jiro is the process. Instead of writing myself about it, I'll point you to this English Tokyo ramen page:

I have mine yasai ninniku mashi.

How is it? It's soul crushing deliciousness. The noodles are thick thick thick. This means heavy. But the noodles aren't even the destructive past. The broth is like you took a ham and pureed it. Then simmered some pork bones in this puree for a couple days. Then maybe added just a dash of pork chops to the final product. I don't think it's kosher.

Don't plan any activities that require movement of your body after eating here. I went to the Ikebukuro Jiro, I would recommend going to the movie theater that is 50 meters away. Maybe take a taxi there. Or go sleep in the park which is just down the street.

OK. I'm off on my ramen adventures. I'll post once I knock 10 off my list. Feel free to join me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Snow in Tokyo

Today it snowed in Tokyo. Big, white, fluffy globs of snow. I awoke to about 5 text messages informing me of this, including pictures of snow in Kawagoe, my old place of residence. I figured I'd go make yellow snow or something in the park, but when I walked outside it was just raining. It was cold. So I went back inside and watched Saw 4.

If it snows tomorrow I'll go play in it... maybe.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Attempts at HDR Photography

HDR (High Dyamic Range) photography is interesting. A normal photo often has parts under or over exposed. For example, the building you are taking a shot of looks fine, but the sky is washed out, and just a white overexposed blur. Or the sky is a beautiful blue with soft white clouds, but the trees in the foreground are just silhouettes, totally underexposed. HDR lets you take multiple shots at different exposures and combine them with a computer program to make stunning images.

I'm pretty new at this, so any advice would be appreciated. Here's my work flow:

Find the correct exposure.
First I set the camera to A (aperture priority) and pick a good aperture size. F8 seems to be good for most shots. Take note of what shutter speed the camera automatically gives you. Let's say for example it gives you 15, which means one fifteenth of a second. Take a note of this.

Take the first shot.
Set the camera to M (manual). The settings should be F8 and a shutter speed of 15. Take the shot. You are using a tripod, right?

Take the underexposed shot.
Take a shot at -2 EV. What does this mean? Each EV is an exposure level. Dividing or multiplying by 2 gets you a change in 1 EV. So 15/2 = 8 (its rounded). Divide by 2 again to get 4. Take a shot with F8 and a shutter speed of 4. On the Nikon D40 (most cameras I think) just turn the dial 6 times (each click is 1/3 EV).

Take the overexposed shot.
Underexposed was -2 EV, so now take one that is +2 EV. 15 x 4 = 60. Take a shot at F8 and a shutter speed of 60.

Note: Many DSLR cameras have something called AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing). This lets you tell the camera to take a certain number of shots at different EVs automatically. For these, just set it to take your 3 shots and click the shutter once, it will do all the work for you. But the Nikon D40 lacks this! If I had known more about this I might have bought a different camera. Like the Canon Rebel XT. It's nigh impossible to take hand held HDR shots, because of all the fiddling with dials and knobs and buttons. Even on the tripod, my shots are often slightly misaligned. Booo!

On the computer.
I use Photomatix, a program built for HDR processing. Just follow the instructions in their program for merging the 3 shots together. All of these shots here are using the default settings. There is a lot to play with in this program.

How did my shots come out? Kinda crap, I think. A lot had people in them, which creates weird "ghost" effect.

Most HDR shots are scenery type shots.

But sometimes "ghosting" can create an interesting image.

HDR doesn't lend itself to everything, but the best shots I've seen are
  • Indoors with bright windows and lots of interior detail.
  • Outside with distinct cloud formations.
  • Anywhere with a lot of shadow and bright spots.
I'll keep at it.

FYI, these shots are mostly from the Akihabara area in Tokyo.

Want to see the power of HDR? Check out the HDR pool over at flickr. Some are really amazing.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Genki Drinks

元気 (Genki)

Genki has a few meaning. It can mean wellness as in, "Are you genki? You don't look genki. You should lay off the fried whale meat." It can mean energy like, "That kid is so genki, he kanchos with the power of an adult!" Or it can mean health, which really just means wellness. Anyways, genki drinks are energy drinks... or so I thought. I recently bought a handful of them to try out. Chemicals and sugar aren't my fortay, so this is a one shot sampling.

Ukon no Chikara. Not an energy drink!!! This drink is actually a sort of hangover cure. The boss forced you into another late night of drinking after work? Need to be up and ready to do it again the next day? Drink this. It tastes like medicine. I drank it sober, in the middle of the day, on a relatively empty stomach. I felt ill.

On recycle day in Japan, check out what people are throwing out. Some households will have hundreds of these. Also available in easy to snort powder form.

Fiber Mini. An unnatural dose of fiber to get things... going. But wait... it has other uses:

Amino-Value. Kind of just a syrupy taste. Amino acids are supposed to help replenish fluids, so I guess drink this when you are active. Especially when your pool needs cleaning.

Kireto Lemon. Just a super C type of drink. Drink when you are feeling sick and need a vitamin boost. Tastes like concentrated lemonade. Would be good with vodka and a little Chambord I think.

Acerola C. I thought it was cranberries. But no! It's some sort of exotic fruit from the West Indies. Hooray?

Ripobitan D. The most popular of all the energy drinks. Tastes like grape cough syrup. Makes you hallucinate.

So how can you benefit from these? A typical day might go like this:
  1. Wake up and have a Ukon no Chikara to cure the hangover.
  2. So many germs on the train to work, have an Acerola C to boost the immune system.
  3. Fiber Mini with lunch, can't store this ramen in me too long.
  4. Sleepy after lunch? Ripobitan D to the rescue.
  5. Work out after work and stay hydrated with an Amino Value.
Or just stick with what you know.

Monday, January 14, 2008

8 Museums down, 41 to Go

The here and now - Mitsuo Aida

This is the GRUTT Pass. Its one of those things that kicks ass and takes names. And by takes names, I mean it gets you into museums. 49 different museums in the Tokyo area to be exact. All for 2000 yen. It's a great deal. I had one last year, when the only free day was Sundays (museums are closed on Mondays). Managed to hit up 18 places during the 2 months the pass was valid. This year time is a liquid commodity. How many can I see?

This week the magic number was 8.

Kichijoji Art Museum.

Small place, with only 3 rooms. One was about copper plate etchings, one was photography from the 50s in Japan, and one was 36 views of Fuji, a modern interpretation.

Highlight = Ken Domon, The Heart of Japan. Photos from the 30s, 40s, and 50s from small traditional villages in Japan. His shots of children were great. Usually shots of children in poor villages are of the "boo hoo" variety, always with a donation jar on the side. Not here. Happy, fun, interesting photos of children from generations past.

Inokashira Park Zoo.
A tiny tiny place in popular Inokashira Park. Lots of Japanese water fowl, and some small mammals. Also a walk in squirrel cage. Attached is a random, out of place sculpture garden.

Highlight = Depends on your mood.

Evil ogre statue or

Awww... a guinea pig petting zoo.

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
Meh. This place looks like a great place, but the GRUTT pass only gets you into the wierd basement exhibit. Spent about 5 minutes total. FYI, the other floors cost about 1800 yen to see and appear to be some good shit.

Highlight = It was close to other museums...

Matsuoka Museum of Art.
This place is one of my favorite. It houses some modern sculpture, some Egyptian artifacts, Indian Buddha statues, Chinese porcelain and silk paintings, and Japanese oil paintings. It's very small, and there is almost no one there. The museum is built around a small Japanese garden. This is why I go to museums, it's bliss.

Highlight = A kimono clad grandma admiring the works.

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.
It's a residence near Meguro station in a large park. The uniqueness is that it's all art deco. There is a lot of history with the building, it was built by Prince Asaka in the early part of the 1900s. History, or just a rich dignitary spending money on shiny things... you decide.

Highlight = Seems like the focal point of art deco is fancy chandeliers. There were dozens of different light sources.

Mitsuo Aida Museum.
A master of poetry and brush stroke, Mitsuo Aida's works are simple and amazing.

Highlight = His whimsical style of writing. And most pieces are heavy on the hiragana, so it's a good place to practice your Japanese. His writing is very Zen in nature, and there are lots of benches and alcoves to sit and ponder.

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.
Located in a fancy pants opera venue, this one has a new exhibit every few months. This time was Nordic design. If you like looking at Ikea furniture that is made out of real wood that costs more than you make in a year, this is for you.

Highlight = Lots of funny looking chairs.

You can buy a GRUTT pass from any participating museum, from the Tourist Information Center in Shinjuku or Tokyo Station, or from any Metro station. If you buy it from a Metro station, you can get it bundled with a couple 1 day metro passes. These normally cost 710 yen each, but you get 2 of them, plus the pass for 2800 yen. Trust me, it's a good deal.

The pass itself is valid for 2 months from the first day you use it. You can go to each museum once. There are about 10 that are only for a discount. For instance the Mori Art Museum is a 300 yen discount off their 1500 yen ticket price. But the other 49 are all free. Most are within the main Tokyo metropolis, but some are a bit outside "the loop".

The museums included on the pass vary in all shapes and sizes. There are 4 or 5 contemporary art museums, plenty of historic artifact type places, some zoos, and a few science museums. If you have any questions, please send me an email or post a comment. Museums are a wonderful way to enlighten yourself.

Next: I unravel the mysteries of Hello Work, the Japanese unemployment office, and go to more museums.