Monday, July 26, 2010

THE TOP FIVE: #1 Baird Brewery

Number one. #1. First place. No doubt.

Japanese beer sucks. I am in the habit of generally qualifying my statements with things like "I think" or "I have heard." But there is no need for that now. I don't think Japanese beer is bad. I know it is. I know it like I know I breathe oxygen. Along with qualifications, I am a fan of colorful adjectives. Japanese beer doesn't even deserve that justice. It sucks.

Now all of that might sound quite harsh, but I would like my readers to fully appreciate the expanse of the hopless desert I have found myself in. I had been here for a few months before I got in good with another ALT, Brian, and he saw that my passion for beer was like his own. Serious passion. So he said he knew a place. We went, I fell in love, and have returned many times since.

Baird Brewery is in Numazu, a port city well known for its fishing industry. It is a 55 minute train ride on the local, costs me 950 yen one way. Then a 30 minute walk from station to pub. Its a pretty natural trip at this point. They now have two other establishments in Tokyo, but the Fishmarket Taproom in Numazu is the original and flagship.

Last week I helped Baird Brewery celebrate its ten year anniversary. It is still a young business, but doing quite well. This year they won three gold medals at the World Beer Cup, tying a Californian brewery for most medals.

On any given day they have about ten year-round taps, and 4-8 seasonals that are always changing. The brewmaster is always experimenting and infusing local ingredients like mikan, yuzu, and tea. One beer used green tea as a source of bitterness instead of hops. While not every beer may be for my palette, they don't ever make a less than great beer.

Never before, and probably never again will I find a brewer that is so aligned with my own preferences. Essentially, they LOVE to use hops. Three of the year-round beers are IPAs. And they are always brewing seasonal India Pale Ales featuring English hops, American hops, or a mix of both. Some truly bitter stuff.

The taproom is cozy place where one pulls up a stump to drink a pint. There is a strong log cabin decor, very warm. Until sunset, the place gets by just fine with the natural light of the big picture window facing toward the bay. Even though it takes me an hour and a half to get there, the place is full of familiar faces. There is a definite community. Locals and commuters, all gathered because they know they found something special. One of the best breweries in the world, growing in the middle of a hopless desert.

Baird Brewery, the Fishmarket Taproom, and all the wonderful folks working and drinking there, will above all, be missed so much. I have a few days left here. Time for one more visit...

More about Baird:

New Huffington Post article

World Beer Cup

Baird Brewing

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THE TOP FIVE: #2 Fujisan

One of the best known and most recognizable mountains in the world sits in my backyard. Or perhaps I am in Fujisan's backyard. It took a few weeks before I first saw it. Especially elusive in the hot summer haze. Winter is when Fuji really dominates the horizon, all skirted in snow. Unless you are behind a hill, Fuji can be seen from all over the place. Visible at three of my six schools, I would steal away to the upper floors in the afternoon, and just stare at the mountain. I stared at it as if in a moment it might be gone. I stared at it in preparation for the days, most days, when it could not be seen. In my final week, hot and humid, I am unlikely to see it again. But mountains are unpredictable, and I retain some hope. One last peak.

I've seen bigger, but nothing compares to Fuji.

THE TOP FIVE: #3 Mikans

I like fruit. Bananas are solid. Grapes are tasty. Apples have their moments. I never really cared for oranges. Perhaps they were just too much work. Too messy. Whatever the reason, I didn't often bother with them. That changed rather quickly in Japan. Mikans (Japanese oranges) happen to be among the numerous agricultural specialties of Shizuoka, my prefecture. At farms, in yards, and all over the city, trees were full of these little orange balls. They were so readily available that I began packing them in all my lunches. Then teachers, wanting to share their regional heritage, would share even more of the things with me. There was no getting enough. I loved them. And golly were they easy eating! They would get to the point where the orange outer layer was no longer skin, but a loose pouch holding the firm and juicy fruit inside. I have never held a fruit so ready to bust out of its casing. Of course this is all past tense. Mikan season is over, and not soon enough to occur for me. I am glad that the grocer isn't pushing some imported crap upon me, but sad that I had to say goodbye to mikans many months ago.

For me, a mikan is the flavor of Japan.

THE TOP FIVE: #4 Shinkansen/Trains

It has been two years since I have last operated an automobile. I have been a passenger a few times, but I have gotten by pretty well without driving. For trips around town I usually bike. When I go a little further, I take the train. The Japan Railroad has been quite accomplished in moving me around. For bigger trips I opt to take the Shinkansen (bullet train). There have been a few occasions here where we start tracing lines across an imaginary United States map, wondering where all the hubs could go for American high speed rail. What cities are crucial, what states to bypass. There is nothing like it back home. I remember people getting excited last year when the president was talking about high speed rail. The "high speed" that he was talking about was the same speed that Japan was talking about prior to World War 2.

I will really miss having a good train system.

THE TOP FIVE: #5 Drinking in the Street

For most of my second year here, I have had an ongoing list loosely rolling around my head. It was a list of my favorite things in Japan. The things that would be hardest to replace, and I would be missing the most. I am inside of my last ten days here. Time really does have a knack for moving fast. There are many unique things that I have experienced. Some well known, some less so. (As a side note: There are no people on the list. I have met some wonderful folks here. I just don't want to place people on the same list as things.) So here it is, straight from the east, we're going live, far from the least, its the Japan Top Five.

#5 Drinking in the Street.

I must admit some reluctance to having this on the list. Being able to have some alcohol out in public is not a cause I fight for, or something to write home about. But it is something that I will certainly miss. It is done well here. People go for a picnic and bring some rice wine. They have a beer at a parade or festival. Movie theatres have beer vending machines. It doesn't cause a scene. Its one more excuse not to sit in some overpriced smokey bar.

My second night in Japan, I was in Tokyo for orientation and we went out to dinner for a prefectural welcoming party, then to karaoke, then one of the ringleaders, a British guy, said "I know a place." So we followed him to a convenience store. He bought everything he needed to mix up some drinks, and a group of us proceeded to sit on the curb and chat until we realized the sun was up and we had to get back to our workshops.

That's something I am going to miss.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tokyo Marathon 2010

A couple weeks ago, I ran in a marathon...

Sunday morning I woke up at 5:30. I was within walking distance of a race that was 3.5 hours away. I ate a quiet breakfast in the bathroom while my cheering section was still asleep in the hotel beds. Less than two hours to race time, I wandered out into the morning. I saw a man with a Tokyo Marathon bag, and followed him to the starting line. It was raining. We stood, stretched, and waited in the rain. I felt so weird standing in the middle of 35,000 strangers. I was a cold, wet, bundle of nerves. I did not want to stand next to these people. I wanted to run against them. I am generally a social person, but that morning the only way I could see communicating was by placing one foot in front of the other.

The gun fired and the clock started. Three blocks ahead I could see the confetti canons. We all cheered and slowly made our way forward. Upon reaching the starting line we could begin to jog. It took me a few miles to shake the desire to jog. It didn't feel like a race, the pace was far too relaxed. Anyone fast was way up ahead. I spent half the race trying to accelerate to my desired pace, and the other half maintaining it.

While I never took quitting seriously, it felt like an ongoing mental battle to stay in the race. My body was trained and was doing its job. Nothing was too sore. But my mind kept making suggestions. Everyone was having so much fun on the sidelines. I could be one of those people. No. I had to stay with it. Shut up mind. There was a sign to mark every kilometer. I worked out all the math of what fraction or percentage I had done. Converted it from kilometers to miles. Thought about what pace would put me where and what I needed to do to break my goal

It continued to rain. Rain can add some adrenaline to a five mile workout, but not so much to a twenty-six mile race. That's just wet. The greatest moment arrived as I turned up the street toward Shinagawa and I saw some of the leaders running back down the other lane. Right there it was evident how far ahead they were and how they were in a completely different league. I didn't mind all that. I was thrilled at the realization I was running in the same race as such world class athletes. I wasn't about to challenge any titles, I just want to share the same piece of asphalt.

In addition to the official race food provided along the course, families were handing out sweets and home baked goods. I never partook because I did not include food in my training, but the offerings to the runners were warmly accepted.

It was somewhere around my last few kilometers that the sun broke out. I didn't really notice. I just saw the road ahead. A few bridges into the Tokyo Big Site provided the only course inclines. I lost no stride pushing over them. I continued to count kilometers, but my sense of time as a whole seemed rather muddy. All of a sudden I was dashing through the finish line. After 3 hours and 50 minutes* I stopped running, and I experienced about ten seconds of weightlessness. Then it all got stiff.

Upon signing up for the Tokyo Marathon I set a goal of four hours. I beat that. In doing so, I also beat the time of my friend that encouraged me to sign up. He has informed me of his intentions to run again and beat my time. Once he does this we will go head to head in another race, likely in another country. We shook on this.

*3:50:43 from gun to finish line, but 5-6 minutes less from start line to finish line.

Patrick and I posing with a bunch of our cheering section. It was pretty great to hear my name and see a few familiar faces when I was in the middle of such a crowd. Big high fives to my friends that ran all over Tokyo and bounced from station to station to catch a couple glimpses of my run.

The medal seen around my neck is given to every person that finishes the marathon. I kept the medal around my neck for the following 48 hours, it only came off for showering.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Heading Down South

Saturday morning, 19th of December, I caught a flight out of Tokyo to Bali, Indonesia. My headphones did not work for the in-flight movie, but the flight was otherwise agreeable. My traveling companion was Jess, another ALT from my city. On arrival, we were hung up getting the Visas, and so we were the last to the luggage claim. The conveyor was stopped and our two bags were in the hands of three uniformed men. With an assertive nature the porters swept us through the final steps of the airport, nearly barking orders at us. “Hand over the pink slip here.” Exchange money there.” Then it was over and they asked for a tip. I rummaged in my fresh envelope of Indonesian cash and gave the man who carried my bag a pink bill. Then the other two put out their hands. Okay, two more notes. The cab ride was near an hour, and about halfway through I decided to count my rupies. My first observation was that the pink bill is 100,000 rupies, or $10. I gave three guys a ten dollar tip each. And so did Jess. $30 rendered for a (no lie) 100 foot walk through the airport, more frustrating than helpful. But that was the racket.


The Airport is actually fairly close to the city center, but traffic gets pretty thick. I have no idea where so many people on scooters need be to going, but there they go. For the first few days we stayed at Sugi Bungalow in Kuta, Bali. Kuta is the tourism focal point of Indonesia. The spring break/Cancun/party central destination of Bali. We stayed about ten minutes of narrow street walking from the ocean. The hotel was a gated compound, complete with broken glass molded into the top of the fence. A pool, outdoor dining area, and a scattering of quaint bungalows gave little reason to leave.

For three days we hoofed it around town enjoying the international cuisine (lots of Mexican) and avoiding being made suckers. Kuta is a playground for tourists (mostly Australians) and a hunting ground for local vendors. I say “local” but it seemed that folks came from all over Indonesia to tap into this thriving tourism community. I have read that tourism has been down due to terrorism in the last decade, but it is hard to imagine there being many more people.

The beach is something else. A few miles of sand against the Indian Ocean. The sunsets are nothing short of amazing. The beach is well attended throughout the day, but especially at dusk the people pour out. And mostly locals at that. Its great to see people recognizing the good stuff that they have. But on the flipside, the beach and water are in a terrible state. Hundreds, no, thousands of fish are washed up dead on the shore. I don’t know what killed them, but I doubt it was kindness. In addition, garbage is everywhere. Not sure if its the locals or the tourists, but its bad.

I wanted to hang around the beach town to observe the Solstice. How grand it was to celebrate my second Summer Solstice of the year. The day loses a little flare being so close to the equator, but I enjoyed it just the same. Unlike those heathens in Japan who celebrate the Equinox. Dinner was at the Havana Club. Great food, good wine, and framed pictures of Che Guevara all over the walls. Then it was bedtime. The morning would include an early flight to Jogyakarta on the island of Java.