Friday, June 30, 2006

Learning the Japanese Culture

Went to the Crosspal Niigata Friendship Center to learn about the Japanese Culture. My only regret was that I did not go there earlier. I had so much fun.

I started off learning about the basic Karate punches, its ethics and history. I am glad I didn't start with learning how to wear a yukata, or else it would all be soaked in sweat.

First time wearing a yukata

Then I proceeded to the yukata section where I learnt about the way to wear a Yukata (summer kimono). Wearing the yukata in itself is an art. The sensei who taught me about the ki-kata (着かた the way to wear/dress) caught me red-faced. As she was wrapping me up with the yukata, she told me that the yukata should be worn without anything inside except the underwear. I was staring blank at her, trying to gather the right Japanese phrase to clarify if she meant I need to strip in front of her!

I was dumbstrucked and freaked out. Cold sweat, I attempted to simply ask if I need to do it now, but before I could utter a word, she said it was ok for now because this is just a demonstration. For the record, the correct way of wearing a yukata is to have no underlying clothes except the underwear. However, the ki-kata for the females is more elaborate. And yes, the females have no choice but to strip to their underwears even for demonstration. Well, it is ok for them but not for a guy stripping in front of a female sensei who just knew each other a minute ago! I donned a yukata within 5 minutes. But even 5 minutes, that is really long. No one wears a t-shirt for more than 5 seconds!

Just sit and wait to be served

Now that I have gotten myself all dressed up, it was only appropriate to go for the Tea Ceremony (茶道 or chadou). The Tea Ceremony was a new and good experience for me. It is steep in custom and there are many rules to follow. The way to sit, receive, hold , drink from and return the cup has its own rules. The starter of the ceremony was a sweet dessert. As for me, I did not realise I was served dessert. The so-called dessert looked like a peach fruit or something. I didn't know what to do with it and my guide was looking at me waiting for me to eat it. I was only given a toothpick.

The dessert that got me fooled. No one would have expected that this is not a peach.

Well, everyone has to go through a phase where they have to admit about their stupidity. I did and so I asked my guide how I should to deal with that "peach fruit".

"Just slice it with the toothpick into the size of your choice", my guide said.

"With this? How?", as I pointed to the toothpick.

"Oh! Just cut it, you will know." And so I did. To my surprise, it was like our Malaysian mooncake texture with red bean paste inside. It was a very good fake and I was really fooled. No one would have expected it to be sooooo real!

Getting my hands on the chigeri, a sample of which is laid out in front.

After the Tea Ceremony, I proceeded to do Japanese Calligraphy and chigeri (ちげり). Both are paper art in short. I am sure I do not need to elaborate much on what calligraphy is but for chigeri, it is something like exploiting the existence of colorful special-type papers, and then using your hands, to tear the shape of your chigeri and make a beautiful picture out of myriad of combinations, depending on skills and imagination, of course.

Me trying out calligraphy

Just like calligraphy, a lot of patience is involved. As I am a person with very little or no patient at all, you can imagine how calligraphy and chigeri would turn out for me.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

My Sporting Life

Though I am a very active sportsperson, I am guilty of not blogging anything about my sporting life here, yet so far. And it is past 3 months (soon) now. I just couldn't find the opportunity to bring my camera along to take pictures of the place where I train, whenever I do my running or swimming. I just find it a hassle to lug it along in my gym bag. So, one day I told myself to do so after much hesitation.

I train at Nishisogo Sports Center, just 1.5km from where I live. The place is a self-contained sports center with tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball courts, swimming pool, archery ground, football field, baseball field and a big gym. During winter, there is also the indoor running track, indoor tennis court and of course an all-year round indoor swimming pool. I am sure many people have heard of indoor swimming pool, but indoor tennis courrrtt????
The rubberised track comes in two courses. One is the 600m, while the other is 350m. I train with the 600m all the time. The course comes with a fair share of undulated terrain and flat course. I have to admit that 600m is fairly short for long distance training. Usually I would do 20 x 600m, or 15 x 600m on other occasions.

As for swimming, I have joined a 3-month membership to have unlimited usage of the indoor swimming pool. Even though it is only a 25-m pool, am always proud of the indoor pool here. Almost everything in the indoor area is automated and it's really cool. For example, the ambience temperature in the indoor area is controlled at 30 deg C all year round. The water too is set at 30 deg C. There is also a sauna room. As for the shower area, there is a temperature control gauge on the shower knob with dial units from 20 to 70 deg C. Really cool.

External view of the indoor swimming pool. In front is my bicycle, the grandfather type-bicycle which has brought me to many places.

As for the changing room in the indoor swimming pool, it is partially carpetted, can you believe it! Yes, carpetted! So, after drying your feet at a buffer zone, your feet will land on soft wooly carpet. It feels damn good after doing laps in the pool. Japanese really know how to pamper themselves. Am also impressed with the maintenance of the changing area. Every 5 minutes, there is someone making sure the changing room is dry and free from hair. Someone would be combing the area with a mop and static roll to suck up the hairs.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

100mbps Internet Connection

I am now connected to the internet at a very high bit rate of 100mbps, exactly 100x faster than Malaysia's Streamyx ADSL Broadband connection. Over here, it's VDSL, which stands for "Very high bit rate Digital Subscriber Line". With the VDSL, I am enjoying seamless multiple page uploads and lots of movie downloads. I have at present, 7 DVDs downloaded off BitTorrent and another few coming as I type this blog.

The VDSL modem is also very small. Look at the comparison with the highlighter put side by side.

Surfing has never been so enjoyable until now. Of course, 100mbps is still not the fastest yet. They have up to 2Gbps ie 2000mbps which I found unnecessary at this point of time. You may think such speed could spin alot of head...and yeah, it does! It's crazy man! If you think doing Skype on 1mbps is fabulous, 100mbps would allow me to listen to RickDees streaming online, talk on skype, download a few movies simultaneously and yet get no instances of "Buffering....".

How much do I pay? It's really very cheap here. If you just Google up VDSL, you will find that VDSL is very expensive in some countries. Here, it's about 4400yen which is about RM145. Again, the Japanese cost of living adjustment rate is about RM1 to 100yen, so it's only about RM44 equivalent in Malaysia!

This is abit off topic but the above picture is something very interesting and I am excited to blog it out. GPS (Global Positioning System) here has taken to a new level where it is done in 3D. It's really cool. What's even more cool is that it is accessible from the mobile phones here. Lost in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or even in Okinawa? No problem, just find your way out from the new GPS system....

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Homestay with the Nakata Family (Part 3 of 3)

The Nakata Family House

Woke up at 8.30am only to find that breakfast was already waiting for me. The kids and mom were already waiting downstairs for me. Yah, I know what you are thinking now, but no, I was not guilty because the kids were also engrossed on their PlayStation 2 and Ikumi were half-way through some chores.

We left for BBQ at Kameda Park. We were late but not the last. Had miso soup, yaki-soba, seafood and lots of seafood, sausages and yaki BANANA! The families were really warm and nice to be with. The BBQ was a hive of activities. New activities happening every minute and there were many events happening in the same minute. There were over 20 members at the BBQ and only 5 foreigners. At one point, there was a magic show, on the other hand, it was about Malaysian food and then at another corner, someone dressed in Totoro appeared.
With the other host families

Konan related my yaki-soba horror story to my host family and the rest of the people listening to it. O well, he managed to embarrass me though. You see, last month I bought a packet of raw yaki-soba (then, it was only known as soba to me since I was kanji-dumb) after yearning for pork noodles.


To me, soba looked exactly like our Malaysian yellow noodles. In fact it came with packet ingredients just like our Maggi mee. So, I dumped everything in the pot to cook with it and it was a disaster. So happened Konan dropped by for a visit when the disaster struck. When we saw the same packet of soba at the BBQ and watched how it was cooked, he looked at me and laughed out loud. The ingredient packet was actually for frying and not as a soup base…o how silly! Well, I learnt from mistakes...
Time to wash up before going home

We packed to go home at 5.30pm when the weather turned chilly and too windy. The Japanese people surprised me with their sense of responsibility in public places. I mean, just like everyone else, I have heard that Japanese people are known for their discipline and now I could stand to attest this statement. I loved the way they handle garbage. They separate the garbage even in public areas based on combustibles and non-combustibles. I hope I had a before-after shot to describe in detail. They were so meticulous and even to look out for small sweet wrappers and comb the ground to make sure everything is picked up before leaving. Such high discipline of the Japanese made me shudder when I suddenly thought of the public picnic areas in Malaysia.

I reached home at 6.30pm. Once again, the Nakata family managed to pull a quick surprise on me again even to the last minute before I bode them farewell. Remember the yaki-soba story Konan told? While taking my bag out from the car boot, Ikumi gave me a new packet of yaki-soba and asked me to try cooking again. It was really touching. O well, it was just soba, but to me, it was more than that. She was so sai-sum and that really touched me.

I never realized how tired I was until after bathing and when I slumped on the sofa, trying to reconcile to myself on the enormous activities that took place from the day before to the very hour before I came home, and up to the grand finale from the Nakata family. Then I thought to myself…o boy, this is the best I ever had since coming here…..

Homestay with the Nakata Family (Part 2 of 3)

Tenju-en Park, just a stone throw from the Big Swan Stadium. The place where the Welcome Party was held.

We left home and rushed to Tenju-en Park which was just a stone throw away from the Big Swan stadium (the stadium where one of the 2002 World Cup matches was played). Was really happy to see everyone coming back together from the short absence. Had ice-breaking games, performances, and lots of makan!
One of the two tables with a wide range of food served

The spread on the tables converging from the 18 families was astonishing to say the least. The assortment of food ranged from simple yaki soba to well decorated donno-what-you-call-it sushi, international dishes by luckier/unluckier participants who cooked/has to cook and sinful desserts. Moment of truth came when the Malaysians were given less than 5 minutes to cook up a performance. I was shocked in stupor and the only thing I could think of was where the nearest exit was. Sarah and myself had a break when an Indonesian came to us for a joint-performance. We agreed on Rasa Sayang, a common folksong of the Indonesians and the Malaysians. Sarah played the piano, the Indonesian and myself were doing the singing. Pheeww....I think we managed to pull off that one pretty well... We left for home at 10pm.
Tomoki and myself enjoying the myriad of food from different countries

Ikumi needed to get some food for BBQ the next day with the other families. So, we headed for Jusco in Shibata which is now known to me as the largest Jusco in Niigata. It was really huge, like the whole of Mid-Valley...maybe, or maybe the three-quarters of 1U being Jusco and the rest, tenants. The kids were shopping for the typical Japanese junk food and I, of course being the guest, was helping Ikumi to do the BBQ shopping. I must say she was very hak-hei to have kept asking me what I liked as if the whole BBQ was set for me. She offered sake, wine, beer, etc...but I turned them all down saying it was unnecessary since I would drop dead as soon as I reached home. I was really tired after a whole day of self introduction, marketing of Malaysia, trying to focus on the conversation in Japanese, as well as to teach basic Malaysian expressions. Meanwhile, the kids pulled a decent surprise when they were dividing their treasure bounty of Japanese junk food and voila, I had my share too!
Koki showing off his "children beer". As you can see from the picture, Japan has beer for kids too! Before you fret, I managed to have a sip, it's just apple juice with lots of foam that turned it to look exactly like beer. I was deceived too. The "beer bottle" is written "こどもののみもの" (kodomo no nomimono) meaning children's drink.

They actually bought 4 sets for each of the items and when they finished distributing equally among themselves, they said, 'Kore Aruden-san no'...meaning 'This is your’s'. My face was flushed red immediately, perhaps by the abrupt turn of event in front of Ikumi. I was really touched by the kids' gestures. They were so adorable. Though I was no fan of junkies and I was too full to stuff anything more, I took them anyway and opened one of the packets. I was just being courteous and being a Malaysian, of course. It was one of those typical Japanese junkies and the one that I opened was a cotton-candy sprinkled with little bombs that pops when they react with the moist in the mouth. It was 'explosive', literally...but yah, it was quite nice... Ikumi prepared the ofuro (Japanese bath like the hotel bathtub), with the digital temperature gauge set to 45deg C for me to pamper myself. I was really spoilt. It was great! I don’t really know how else to describe this.I thought I would drop dead as soon as I reached home but I was more refreshed after the bath. I spoke to Ikumi instead, until 1.30am. I taught her like a teacher of the Malay language and how she should introduce herself properly, say this and that, revision of the basic greetings that I taught her earlier, etc.

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Homestay with the Nakata Family (Part 1 of 3)

Welcome ceremony where I was introduced to the Nakata Family

This is perhaps one of the most wonderful and memorable times I ever had since coming to Japan. I did a homestay with the Nakata (中田) family over the weekend, under the Hippo Family Club. It was organised by the university. I did some last minute souvenirs packing (last minute person, as usual).
Some of the souvenirs for the Nakata family

Got them some batik souvernirs and the KLCC scaled model. Irene did a marvellous job in the whole souvenir delivery, and her top-notch detailing, up to the type of envelopes for use.

Front to back: Yoshiki, Koki & Tomoki

The Nakata family consists of Ikumi Nakata (mother), Tomoki Nakata (eldest son), Koki Nakata (2nd son), Yoshiki Nakata (youngest son), Yoriko Nakata (grandmother) and the father who is away in Tokyo for work (Tadashi Nakata). A bond was forged as soon as I was introduced in the welcome ceremony held at the university, as if we met in our past life before. The children were so kind to me from the first minute we met. Kouki, 10, kept touching my hand and caressing it as if to check if a foreigner's hand has the same texture as a Japanese. Apparently, he didn't find anything special and kept repeating this funny antic until the next day. Tomoki ,13, was really loving, making sure I understood whatever that was going on from the journey back to their home to the journey back to mine. He was always the one taking the trouble to look behind his seat for me and made sure I was not scratching my head whenever the mom asked me something. Yoshiki, 6, was always the tiniest feature in the family and the most adorable of course. He was the one who kept holding my hand, like a father-son relationship. Well, I felt like a father of course. Even the mother said it was unusual to have him been so close to someone in such a short period of time.

As usual, even though they spoke very little English or none at most of the time, like other Japanese, the intensive Japanese course was helping much. The short forms or conversational forms were of great help, really. Of course, I did not understand everything when the speed was too fast, but at least I now know what is going on and get the gist of the message. The Nakata family has 6 cats at home. Each of the sons adopts one, the father and the mother as well. The additional one is for everybody. I was really surprised to see so many cats in the house. I was exposed to dogs more when I was in Malaysia and not cats. So, it was a weird experience, especially when cats, you know...
Koki showing the cat toilets. This is the first time I see a cat toilet...

Their home was at Nishi-Shibata (West Shibata), about 39km away or 45minutes drive from where I live. Still in Niigata though. I was very lucky to have a family who didn't need me to help them in anything. I was expected and prepared myself to help in the kitchen for the welcome party with the other homestay students later in the evening. However, I was only told to play with the children, but we ended up watching Alien vs Predator! Or should I say, that I was unlucky that I did not have the chance to cook in a true Japanese environment or learn how to cook some Japanese dishes...

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Malaysian Food Fest Part 2

Did my second Malaysian food gathering after receiving my Malaysian ingredients. Attempted a second time for the chicken rice and am proud to tell that it worked perfectly this time. Everything was just great. Did the beggar chicken and steam-wrapped it for 2 hours. It turned out perfect!

Menu for the night:

1. Beggar chicken
2. Chicken rice
3. Vegetable topped with oyster sauce and ikan bilis
4. Curry squid and chicken
5. Pudding

The food spread...

The beggar chicken, added with kei-chi for the extra ummmpphh..

The guests...
Resting after a sumptuous meal. Catching the World Cup opening...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Daihatsu: Strong presence in Japan

The front and back of the Daihatsu Coo. Could this be the next Perodua Kenari Replacement Model that would be launched soon? is a very nice car!

Or any of this line up???....interesting isn't it with so many Daihatsu models here


Toyota has too many cars to be published on this blog. I made a brief stop at a showroom to take pictures of several models.

The Toyota Prius, Mark X and the Premio

Nissan Cars

The New Nissan Skyline...very chun man!!! I love this car...

Nissan Moco and Cube

The Nissan Note (just launched), Wingroad and March

Nissan LaFesta

The New Serena...this looks so much better....wait for this model in Malaysia if you intend to buy the Serena..

Honda Cars

Honda That's...what a name...and it's only about RM30,000.00

Honda Life

Front and back of the Honda Elysion and Honda Zest

Honda Airwave

Honda Zest

Nice Mazda Cars

The lineup for the Mazda 6...sedan and wagon

Mazda MPV

Even the price is cheap for the Mazda Demio. Approximately RM 34,000.00. Cannot even buy a Wira in Malaysia.