Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Off to a Rough Start

It's been an interesting day so far. I didn't sleep well last night. Keegan got home from a job in Yosu at around 11:00 last night (Monday). He had been gone since 3:00 Sunday afternoon! Needless to say, I was quite happy to see him, and he was quite happy to be going to sleep. So with all that excitement, I was up a bit later than usual. Then I had a terrible nightmare about my friend being pursued by a bloodthirsty vampire. She was living in a woman's shelter to get away from him, but we knew they couldn't keep her safe. So we devised a plan that when the bad guy came to look into her room, she would sit outside on the window ledge, and I would pretend to be in a passionate embrace with one of our male friends. That way the pursuer would hopefully be embarrassed and leave the room immediately, without realizing who was in the room. I thought it was a pretty good plan.

I had another nightmare about being pursued by a killer a few nights ago. I think these dreams are a result of two things: a) reading The Devil in the White City, which is about the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 but also about a serial killer who seduced women near the fair and b) watching "Twilight" with Glenda on Sunday night. Keegan was in Yosu, and John had to be sociable at some dinner, so Glenda and I planned a ladies night in with pizza and hot young vampires. The movie was terrible, but we enjoyed making snide comments about it. The best part was when the lead vampire, Edward, tells his teenage paramour "You must see me in the sunlight! You must know what I truly am!" I thought he must be truly terrible in the sunlight, but I joked that he would be even better looking than is humanly possible. And in fact, when he steps dramatically into a sunbeam, he looks......exactly the same. Fortunately his lover notices that his skin is sparkly. Wow, now she really knows what she's getting into: dating someone with sparkly skin! Anyway, my sleeping brain apparently gets quite creative when I've been thinking about vampires and serial killers.

So, I woke up sleepy and grumpy from a scary dream, and I dragged myself to the pool. Sleepily, I dumped out my towel and swimsuit and goggles on a bench in the locker room and arranged my jacket and my street clothes in my locker. When I turned back around, my towel was gone. Puzzled, I started looking around, only to realize that another woman in the locker room had clearly mistaken my towel for a free one provided by the pool, and was standing on it to dry her feet off while she got dressed. Of course, there weren't actually any free towels around, and I still needed something to dry off with, so I had to retrieve it from the floor and use it just the same. Ugh!

Fortunately, from this point the morning improved: I did my swim, drove home, and had an excellent breakfast of strawberries and yogurt. Hopefully, it's all uphill from here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Valentine's Day and Cooking Day

This past weekend was such a nice one. Keegan didn't have to work at all, which is definitely unusual. (We already know that he'll be working both Saturday and Sunday this week.) It was a real treat to spend so much time with him.

In the morning on Saturday, Keegan went to a biking event here on the island. They rode 100 kilometers around the southern part of Geoje. I decided not to go because a) 100 km is way too far for me and b) the hills around here are absolutely deadly on the bike! Keegan had a good time, though. Two of our triathlon friends rode, and there were many Korean riders, including one guy who recently won the Ironman competition in Japan. They all stopped for a huge oyster lunch around the 70-kilometer mark.  Personally, I don't know how they could ride the last 30 km with stomachs full of oysters, but apparently everyone survived.

While Keegan was on his ride, I went for a good swim at the pool. In the afternoon, I went to lunch with Glenda and John. We ate really good falafel at a new restaurant called The Turkish House, which is very popular among the foreign set. When we got home, I got a call from Keegan telling me that he was finished with his ride but that he had a few errands to run before he came home. When he arrived, he told me to close my eyes, and then he presented me with a dozen red roses and an assortment of delicious chocolates. He's such a nice husband! He said that the flower shop wasn't crowded at all, so he was a lucky husband as well this year. Valentine's Day is not so popular here, although there were displays in some of the stores featuring elaborately packaged chocolates.

We put the flowers in a makeshift vase (usually our granola canister) and settled down to watch a movie together. When the movie was over, it was time for our big Valentine's Day date, a trip to a romantic Italian restaurant. I was pretty excited to have an excuse to dress up and look nice as such occasions are few and far between. We both enjoyed the chance to eat out, take our time, and have a good conversation. We also enjoyed watching the other diners near us, including a group of girls who were out celebrating a birthday. When we finished our meals, Keegan asked the waitress if there was something on offer for dessert, and she got a funny look on her face and said "Hold on a minute." So we wondered what she was up to. We wouldn't have been surprised if there was no dessert, since it's not usually served in Korean restaurants (hence our many trips to Baskin Robbins). But the waitress soon returned, bearing an extra slice of the birthday cake from the next table over! We laughed and thanked the table next to us, and they wished us a Happy Valentine's Day. The cake was really good, with banana pudding filling and strawberries. It was a good ending for our big date.

On Sunday, my goal was to try my hand at making ricotta cheese. As you may recall from earlier posts, ricotta is very hard to find here, and the one place that sells it charges an arm and a leg. In response to my complaints, several of you loyal readers suggested that I make my own ricotta. Chrissy even sent me a cheese-making kit for Christmas. I have been skeptical of claims about how easy it is to make cheese and afraid that my first atttempt would be a dismaying, and perhaps even disgusting, failure. But you never know until you try. So on our Sunday trip to the store, we bought two big jugs of milk and the fixins for mushroom pizza a la Cogan's (our favorite pizza joint in Norfolk).

The cheese-making was, to my surprise, a success! Not only that, it really was easy, just like everyone says! We heated the milk, stirred in some apple cider vinegar, immediately saw curds, and poured the result over a colander lined with cheesecloth. Voila - about twice as much ricotta as we could have bought at the store, for half the price! We were very pleased with ourselves. But not as pleased as we were when we crafted World's Best Pizza, using homemade pizza crust, homemade marinara, homemade ricotta, and (ahem, ahem) store-bought mozzerella cheese and mushrooms. If we only had a basil plant, we would have reached the absolute pinnacle of pizza creation.

Keegan slices World's Best Pizza


During the construction of this pizza masterpiece, I also put together a huge pot of chili to eat during the week. Keegan helped by doing an endless succession of dishes during this cooking marathon. We were exhausted but really enjoyed spending the afternoon together in the kitchen.

Tonight I tried the ricotta again, this time in a lasagna, also with Keegan's homemade marinara. Heaven!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

This Morning's Run

This morning's run was full of small pleasures (and oddities). After about half a mile, I started up the run's only truly grueling hill. Each week I run a little bit further up the hill, in the hopes that eventually I'll be able to get to the top, and it won't seem quite so bad. Today, on my way down I looked curiously at a man sitting outside a little gardening shack. There was an overpowering smell of smoky barbecue, and the man was sifting through a big pile of ash and charcoal and separating out some bits into a basin. What were they? I passed to fast to tell.

Back on the flat land again, I amused myself for a while by looking at the progress of a giant concrete bridge that's spanning the valley where I run. This time I managed to keep at least some attention on the road, so I did not twist my ankle as I usually do. Further down the road I noticed a new structure had gone up in one of the gardens near the road. It was the semi-circular frame of a greenhouse, made entirely out of green bamboo. By the time I got to the Buddha park, I was deep in thought, counting the months, weeks, and days until my parents' visit in May. I was startled by a rustling in the bushes planted around the Buddha statue. I soon saw the culprit - a pheasant fluttered up out of the greenery with it's long tail feathers flowing gracefully behind it. On the way back to the apartment, I snatched a few glimpses of a small Korean deer running up a thickly forested hillside.

As I entered the last leg of my run, I heard some rousing music. The closer I got to Doekpo, the louder the music got. For some reason, they were playing this bizarre Korean polka music over the loudspeakers in the town. So instead of being accompanied by the soothing sound of the waves, the last part of my run was to the rousing rhythm of Korean pop.

I documented all this just so you know (and so I remember) that even something as ordinary as a morning run is filled here with a variety of pleasant, yet often baffling, moments.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Trip to Japan, Day 3

At dinner on Sunday night, we made plans to meet up with Joy and Todor again on Monday morning. They met us at our hotel around 10, with our Japanese friend Kayoko in tow. Kayoko is from a town near Nagasaki and was there visiting at the same time we were. She gave us a lot of advice before our trip, but we were happy to have her there in person to show us around the city.

Our first stop for the morning was another big temple. This one is famous for an annual festival that is held there in October, which involves a very colorful parade. The entrance to the temple involved many, many stairs. Kayoko, Joy, Keegan, and I trudged up well behind Todor, who seemed to have the energy of a sprightly mountain goat. Keegan started humming the Rocky theme. Inside the temple entrance, we went over to a fountain with many dippers that was meant to be used for washing. Kayoko showed us the proper way to prepare ourselves for praying at the temple: wash first your left hand, then your right, and then scoop some water into your mouth and rinse.

The temple was the first Shinto (native Japanese pantheistic religion) temple that we visited, and it had some different features from the Buddhist temples we had seen before. First of all, it has a unique type of gate, called a torii, that is simpler than the gates at Buddhist temples. Second of all, there were a lot of little figurines around the temple grounds to pray to. For example, there was a really charming little garden close to the main temple with two dog statues in it. The dog statues both had their legs wrapped in bits of string.

Dog statue with prayer string wrapped around its legs.

While we were there, we saw another visitor to the temple retrieve a piece of string from a nearby box and tie it around the dog's leg. Then she bowed and clapped. Next we saw another dog statue, this one with a fountain in front of it. Kayoko told us that if you washed some coins in the water, your money would double, and also that if a woman drinks the water, she will enjoy easier childbirth. On the other side of the main temple was another dog statue on a turntable. Supposedly, sailors into Nagasaki could point the dog in different directions to hopefully influence the winds in their favor. Behind and uphill from the main temple was another shrine with a tunnel of red torii leading to it. There were some really fantastic fox statues there - we may print some of our photographs of them to decorate the apartment.

Keegan and a grinning fox

After the temple, we were getting pretty hungry, so we wandered around looking for a place to eat. Finally we found a tiny noodle shop and decided to try some udon. We were glad to have Kayoko with us because this was a really small shop without tourist-friendly menus. The noodle soups were delcious, though, and the noodle shop proprietress was friendly and curious about us. She told us that she is learning Japanese dance, and that she wished she could talk to us. I practiced my one phrase in Japanese, "domo arigato."

Back into the cold to look at a few more temples. One of them had a preschool associated with it, and the children were just getting ready to go home for the day. As we wandered into the courtyard, some of the kids caught sight of us, and riotous shouting in English ensued. "HI! HOW ARE YOU? MY NAME IS..." was yelled over and over again, particularly by one very round-faced, cheery boy. Keegan's responses to any of this clamor provoked hysterical laughter on the part of all the children.

Since we were nearby, we decided to take a look at the famous Nagasaki "Spectacles Bridge," which is so named because it has two arches. When you look at the bridge together with its reflection, it vaguely resembles spectacles. The bridge is picturesque, but there were many other parts of Nagasaki that we found more beautiful and interesting, so we were slightly puzzled that the Spectacles Bridge is such a widely-touted tourist attraction.

The Spectacles Bridge

After the bridge, we parted ways with Joy, Todor, and Kayoko. We wanted to see the Glover Gardens, which are a touristy area commemorating the history of Dutch and other western traders and businessmen in Nagasaki. The gardens were pretty, with nice landscaping, tons of western-style houses, and ponds stocked with enormous koi. Unfortunately, though, the weather was getting pretty chilly, and we were getting pretty tired. I have to say the highlight of my visit to the gardens was a stop in the coffee shop, where we sampled "Castella," Nagasaki's traditional western-style pound cake, and Keegan had some truly delicious Dutch coffee, brewed in a very tall, and very elaborate-looking slow drip apparatus. I don't usually like coffee, but this was pretty good. It looked strong and black, but tasted as if all the bitterness had been brewed right out of it. Yum. After the gardens, we went shopping in the souvenir shops near the gardens, and I found some gifts for my students and for Glenda, and a few gifts for myself.

We had to take a quick break in the hotel room for a while at this point because we were wiped out. We wrote a few postcards, took a few deep breaths, and then headed out again to have some dinner and check out the lantern festival. We decided to get Chinese food in honor of the Lunar New Year, so we headed into Chinatown, which was absolutely packed. The poor waitresses in our restaurant were non-stop with the plates of fried rice and never-ended refills of water. We had a pretty tasty dinner with sweet and sour fish, shrimp dumplings, fried rice, and a huge bowl of champon, which is a noodle soup that is a specialty of Nagasaki. Everything was delicious.

After dinner we decided to go see a performance of Chinese acrobats. We figured out the location of the performance through careful examination of the pictures and indecipherable characters on our Japanese latern festival brochure. On our way to the stage, we ran into Joy, Todor, and Kayoko! We convinced Joy and Todor to see the acrobats perform, and we had a chance to say good-bye to Kayoko before she headed home.

The acrobats' performance was truly amazing. Fortunately, Keegan had the telephoto lens on the camera, so he documented the performance very well, and we can share the sequence of events with you on flickr (coming soon). The performance started slowly with the female acrobats spinning plates (and, far more amazingly, standing on each other's heads while they did so). Then we saw the male acrobats tumbling through small hoops raised ever higher, the women doing more routines that involved incredible strength and flexibility, and a dance where an elaborately costumed man slowly moved around the stage, magically changing the color and design of his mask with a mere flick of his wrist. (Keegan took a while to catch on to this one. About five minutes into the dance, after several unbelievable mask changes, he exclaimed "Hey! His mask is different!") The most amazing performance involved a man who held a sword in his mouth and balanced all sorts of things (including a wine glass, a balloon, and a rubber ball supporting an architectural masterpiece of martini glasses and shot glasses).

Amazing Chinese acrobat

The most amazing part was when he balanced a balloon on the edge of the sword with a beer bottle on top and then popped the balloon and caught the bottle! The grand finale featured a man who stood on his hands on top of an ever-increasing tower of chairs. We were thrilled (and a little scared).

On the way home from the hotel, we decided to try our hand in one of the pachinko parlors that lined the streets in the area near our hotel. Pachinko is basically a combination pinball and slot machine. The pachinko parlors are huge, smoky, and extremely noisy, and we had been entranced with them for the entire trip. After several false starts, we figured out how to play: you shoot small gold balls into a pinball machine which you can't really control at all. Every time a pinball falls into the right little hole, the slot machine starts rolling, and if things line up just right, you get more little gold balls. At the end of the evening, you can cash in your little gold balls for profit (if you're lucky). We were unimpressed, but apparently many citizens of Nagasaki love pachinko. We saw several very focused old women sitting in front of the machines with baskets and baskets of little gold balls stacked up underneath them.

Back in the hotel, we fell quickly into exhausted slumber. In just two days we managed to pack in just about everything there is to see and do in Nagasaki. It was a bit of a rush - I'd recommend more time there, especially in better weather. And I certainly could have eaten more Japanese food! We are hoping to get back to Japan again soon. There is an overnight ferry from Busan to Osaka, which is only thirty minutes away from the ancient capital, Kyoto. Someday soon, we'll be on it!

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Trip to Japan, Day 2

We awoke on Sunday to another gray, snowy day. Undaunted, we bundled up and headed out in search of a coffee shop for breakfast. I had a very strong green tea latte made from the powdered green tea that the Japanese like, which is apparently rather high in caffeine, I guess because you are actually drinking the powdered tea and not just allowing it to steep in your hot water.

After breakfast we took the tram over to the Urakami area, which was the hypocenter of the atomic bomb explosion. We were distracted near the tram stop by a huge athletic complex where a number of people were out jogging or playing soccer or softball, undeterred by the wet, cold, snowy weather. We saw a very soggy track, a huge and jealousy-inspiring pool, and a very soggy soccer field where some poor youngsters were playing. The players were egged on by a group of enthusiastic bench-sitters who were yelling and singing through megaphones. We admired the tenacity of players and fans.

From the athletic fields, it was a short walk over to the Nagasaki peace park, which would have been an enjoyable and peaceful place for a walk if the weather was nicer. We saw a peace fountain, a huge peace statue, and several smaller sculptures donated by various nations. We noticed that several were donated by former Eastern bloc countries during the 1980's and speculated that these countries were only too happy to proclaim their support for peace while meanwhile subtly impugning the U.S. for dropping the bomb on Nagasaki.

The peace statue in the Nagasaki Peace Park

Next we went on to the actual hypocenter site, which is marked by a black monolith. It was hard to imagine that we were standing in one of the few places in the world where atomic weapons were actually used in combat. More moving than the monolith was another statue nearby. It was of a mother holding a child, and on the base it read simply "1945 8.9 11:02," which of course is the date and time of the explosion.

Statue near the hypocenter

All around in this park and in the Peace Park we saw hundreds of folded paper cranes in a rainbow of colors hung in memory of the victims of the bomb and as prayers for peace. Kayoko told us later that the Japanese were moved by the story of a young girl hospitalized for injuries from the bomb blast. She tried very hard to fold 1,000 paper cranes in the hopes that they would bring her health, but she was not successful. Because of her, paper cranes are now associated with good wishes for victims and survivors.

Finally, it was time to go inside for a while and visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. The entrance to the exhibit hall reminded me of the layout of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. You descend a long, spiraling ramp that reminds you of the downward spiral of disaster and misery that was Nagasaki after the bombing. In a series of well-designed and interesting exhibits you learn about the history of the bombing and the effects of the blast, subsequent fires, and the radiation. Most interesting to me were some of the artifacts that really brought home the explosive power of the bomb, like the metal bottoms of towers that had been twisted by the bomb's force. They also displayed the wall of a building that had been burned black everywhere except where a ladder and a man's body had shielded it from the heat of the blast. There the shapes of the ladder and the man were etched in white. It was eerie. After a room full of written and recorded survivor testimony, you enter a section of the museum dedicated to the arms race, which strongly argues for cessation of nuclear testing and for increased nuclear disarmament.

I suppose people may be curious about how all of this information was presented, since clearly the Japanese are less likely to be sympathetic to the Americans' rationale for dropping the bomb. First of all, it was a little disconcerting to visit the museum as an American. I was reminded of my visit to Auschwitz, where I encountered groups of German tourists and wondered how they felt about their history. This time, it was me who was a citizen of the country that, no matter how compelling our reasons may have been, unleashed unspeakable horror on the citizens of Nagasaki. I felt that the presentation of pictures and artifacts from the bombing was fairly straightforward. The museum didn't have to comment on these articles because they were clearly horrifying. But in the section of the museum dedicated to the anti-nuclear movement, there was definitely a bias against the United States and other countries who possess nuclear weapons. For example, at the beginning of the exhibit, there was a display of many scientists who had worked on the bomb and later came out against the use of nuclear weapons. A number of scientists and military men were quoted as warning Truman that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary to end the war. But there were no opposing viewpoints presented. As someone who has always thought "Who knows what would have happened, but we have to hope that the nuclear bombing saved numerous lives by hastening the end of the war," I was understandably jarred by the museum's refusal to acknowledge this kind of reasoning.

After the museum, we were ready for something less depressing (we were on vacation, after all), so we headed back into the center of town for some lunch. We found a sushi restaurant close to the train station. It was similar to a restaurant we'd been to in Tesco on Geoje Island where the sushi parades in front of you on a conveyor belt and you pick what you want. This restaurant was on a much larger scale, though. Here again, a Japanese woman demonstrated the helpfulness we so appreciated in Japan. After we sat down, we poured out some soy sauce for dipping our sushi in, and Keegan discovered some wasabi to add to his sauce. As he scooped it out, the woman next to us could hold her tongue no longer and told us that the "wasabi" was actually powdered green tea that we were supposed to mix with hot water and drink! So, Keegan had to pour another little dish of soy sauce, and we had something to drink. When she left, the woman told us, in heavily accented English, to have a good trip. Thank heavens for her intervention.

Conveyor sushi restaurant

In the afternoon, we decided to check out two temples mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The first was in the shape of a huge Buddha standing on top of a turtle's back. We approached the temple through a quiet neighborhood of small houses at the base of a hill. The hill was almost entirely covered by a huge, steep graveyard. The whole area was so peaceful and silent, so even though we were freezing, at least we enjoyed being tourists at a quiet time of year. We explored the temple grounds and walked a little around the graveyard, enjoying a great view of the city from the hill. We were disappointed that we couldn't go inside the temple, as there is supposedly a Foucault pendulum inside, suspended from the top of the statue's head!

First temple we visited

The second temple had a more traditional architecture, but it was different from Korean temples because it wasn't so brightly painted. Still, I liked the lush, green, quiet atmosphere there.

Next, Keegan wanted to go down to the waterside to see what we could see down there. There is a huge seaside park in Nagasaki, and there were a lot of people there playing with their dogs and enjoying the brief sunshine. Nearby was an art museum and a shopping area that was mostly closed up for the winter. I'm sure in the summer it's quite nice, almost like an American beachfront area filled with seafood restaurants that overlook the water. It was so nice to be in a city with wide open green spaces - we could certainly use more of that on Geoje!

Keegan by the water in Nagasaki

By this time it was getting late, so we headed back to the hotel to try to contact our friends Joy and Todor, who were coincidentally visiting Nagasaki at the same time. They called around six, and we decided to go get dinner together. Kayoko had recommended that we try an izakaya restaurant, so we asked the ever-helpful hotel staff for advice. They pointed us towards a nearby restaurant, and we were soon comfortably ensconced and trying to figure out what to order from a huge menu. It turns out that izakaya is a sort of tapas-style way of eating, so we ordered a whole bunch of small dishes to share, including delicious edamame, tuna and avocado rolls, grilled scallops, potato salad, and fish. Everything was wonderful! Thankfully, there was an English menu, so we were able to avoid some of the less appetizing dishes, like the raw horse meat. We had an interesting conversation with Joy and Todor (that's why I like them so much!), and retired back to the hotel full and content.