Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ueno Zoo

On my first day, March 4th, I had not realized that most of the museums in Japan do not open until 10 am and I arrived at the park at 9 am. Fortunately, the zoo opened at 9:30 am so I went there first to not waste time.

I actually really loved this zoo because the animals were so active. And unlike China, the vast majority of the animals had fairly nice habitats to live in. The zoo used to have a giant panda, but it either died a few years ago or was transferred but they at least had a cute statue in place of it.

These red pandas were my favorite. So adorable! (sorry for the blurry shots- I didn't want to disturb them by using flash)

How can you resist this ADORABLE face!!!

I had a great time watching all of the groups of school age children at the zoo. They all have matching uniforms and looked so adorable seeing the animals.

I was happy to note that teenagers all around the world are the same. The girls and boys hang out in separate groups and the boys are continually running around and laughing while the girls shriek with laughter at everything the animals do- especially the gorillas who came crashing up along the glass.

Monkeys- hehe I even saw them pick lice off one another and eat it

And other monkeys hoard oranges

And these unique white tailed monkeys

Owls- one with tufts and snowy white

And the scarlet ibis (does anyone remember this story from 9th? grade English)

Peacock with his beautiful tail in full bloom

Lions- it was amazing just how close I was to the lioness (good thing for the plastic glass!!)


Polar Bears- I loved the candid moment I captured of him yawning


Black Bears



A real my little pony!

Galapagos Tortoise who started "running" when the food came :-)

They even had a little tram that you could take that was decorated with these adorable animals- but I thought that the characterization of it was even more cute.

I even got to see beautiful blossoms on my first day!!!

Another great element to the zoo was that they had a five story pagoda

as well as beautiful views of a nearby shrine.

It was all that I could do to restrain myself from purchasing all of these ADORABLE stuffed animals

they even had a red panda one.

And then this African zebra (ok- I don't really know what it is called but that is my made up name for it :-)

And I love how they just have random cute figures all around the park- William said this one was about water conservation

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this zoo- and it was a great way to start off the trip!

Juicy Burger

Following my office hours yesterday, I was able to have lunch with two of my dear friends, Lianne and Adam, who are visiting for the week with their two adorable kids. I was lucky enough to live in here in the bay area with Adam and Lianne for a year before they moved to Florida and I am so happy that they have family who bring them back for visits :-) They introduce me to some good restaurants in the area and today it was Juicy Burger. The burger that I had was definitely juicy- and tasty! It is very hearty and you are able to put on your own fresh toppings. I also was so excited because they have CURLY FRIES!!! I love curly fries and it has been awhile since I had them. When you order a combo meal, ask to substitute for the regular fries and they give you a HUGE order of curly fries- enough that I was able to have plenty for myself and share with everyone else. Thanks for introducing me to another good place guys!!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Back to School . . .

"Back to school, back to school, to show my dad that I'm not a fool. I've got my lunch packed up, my boots tied tight, I hope I don't get in a fight." This song from the classic Adam Sandler movie, Billy Madison, was what I thought about on my first day back to school- at least the college classroom- in three years.

After having a minor issue with our home printer (I swear that I had changed the black cartridge with the color one . . . but I didn't! oopsies :-), I was able to get my syllabus copied this morning before class. I created this syllabus from the reading assignments to the written work- including the breaking social norm experiment for them to do- and eventually the tests (still need to come up with this . . . ) so it was good to finally get it out to the students after working on it for the past month (most intensively this past week).

My class is at 9:15 am and so I thought that most of the class would straggle in late. To my surprise and delight, when I arrived at 9:10, there were already 20 students in the class! And most arrived before the class started at 9:15. I hope that they are able to keep this up throughout the semester. William had warned me that since it was so early in the morning, the class might be unusually quiet and this was definitely the case. I heard "cricket, cricket" numerous times throughout my class. But, several students did raise their hands to answer a few questions so I'm just hoping that they will warm up as the class progresses throughout the semester. I had forgotten what it is like to have students who are so eager to hear what you are saying that they take notes as you say it, and are careful to write down all of the things you include on the blackboard. I was glad that I had prepared some extra material since they were so quiet because I was able to fill nearly the full 65 minute class. I was happy that I had a few students at least laugh when I told them about the great "breaking social norm" that I heard this past weekend. I met a girl at a baby shower who is allergic to gluten and so she shops at Whole Foods sometimes since they have a bigger selection of products. After having lunch at McDonald's one day, she walked into Whole Foods still holding her drink from there. She received several stares and a couple of dirty looks from the other customers, but the best reaction she received from one of the cashiers. She was waiting in a huge line and one of the cashiers, who wasn't working a line, passed by her and burst our laughing. He said that her bringing that cup into this store was one of the coolest things he had seen in awhile and so he would subsequently open up the line for her. What a perfect story to illustrate the unwritten norms that exist in our society.

All in all, I think that the first day went pretty well and it appears that I am looking forward to great semester!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Architecture near Shibuya and Convenience

I enjoyed the architecture that we saw while walking around the area surrounding Shibuya station the first morning after our arrival, March 4th. I like the combination of glass, metal, and concrete

And many of the buildings have a very narrow width since space is truly at a premium in Tokyo.

This was my favorite building of the group- I didn't end up visiting this Disney store in the bottom right corner but I later went to the largest one in Japan when we went to Tokyo Disneyland.

One of the first things I noticed about Tokyo is that they love their convenience stores. We would pass 3 on a block and the nice thing about these places is that they are open 24 hours. And I was able to pick up what I wanted, hand it to the cashier, and leave without having to do much talking (a huge plus since I didn't speak the language). They had 7-11's (but with no Slurpees) where I would buy my Coke Zeros and Pepsi Nex's. Japan is the first country that I have been to where they did not have Diet Coke. I am a huge carbonated diet soda fan so I was a little panicky when I first got there but they fortunately have Coke Zero which isn't my favorite but was an acceptable substitute for the trip. I LOVED these convenience stores and would have breakfast from them nearly every morning of a chocolate chip sweet roll or their "melon bread" (pictured below). I don't know how to describe it- it doesn't really taste like melon but just a sweet bread (maybe the name comes from how it looks).

In addition to convenience stores, they have beverage vending machines all throughout major cities, towns, and suburbs. We would be walking down a random street off the beaten tourist path in some residential area and we would see several vending machines. William loved to get his Calpis (literally pronounced "cow piss") which is a drink that fortunately tastes better than the English name would imply :-)

And, I now know what "sweat" tastes like. Yes, this drink is called "Pocari Sweat." Supposedly it is the Japanese equivalent to Gatorade but I have never really been a big Gatorade fan but it was ok to at least drink some of it. And it sounds kind of cool that I have drunken sweat :-)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

30 Day Blogs: Getting to Know Cheryl

One of my old roommates from Boston and one of the first people that I personally knew who had a blog, Natalie, has challenged all of her friends/blog readers to write a blog post every day for 30 days in an attempt to get to know more about each other. I have accepted this challenge, particularly since I think that it will provide some variety to the slew of Japan posts that I will be flooding my blog during that time. If anyone else is interested, please feel free to join in or even just to do a couple of them.

Like Nat, I am starting this on April 1st (and no it isn't a joke) but will just be the easiest day to start and keep track of which post I am supposed to be writing. I am hoping that this will keep me disciplined enough to write every day on my blog, helping me to keep current with all of the activities happening in my life, as well as being an interesting record to look back on. And I hope that these posts will provide a different insight into who I am. Hope you enjoy!

The 5 Star Hotel in Japan

The Google Office in Tokyo is located on one of the lower floors of the Cerulean Hotel and Towers, just a short walk from the Shibuya station. They had a reduced rate for Googlers and since the company was paying for it, we decided to stay in this five star hotel for 8 nights (the week William worked in Tokyo).

View of the lobby, complete with its own rock garden.

We particularly loved the cherry blossom centerpiece in the lobby

We have stayed at a 5 star hotel once before at the Four Seasons in Sydney but there were some unique elements to a mixed Japanese and Western style five star hotel. One of the first things we noticed was a large plate of fresh fruit including a mango, kiwi, grapes, apple, and an orange. We received a nice note welcoming us to the hotel (in English) and informing us that we should call down to the hotel if we wanted someone to cut our fruit for us. Yes, one of their staff members would have come up to our room and cut our fruit for us if we would have asked them (which we did n0t). That is service to a whole new level for me.

As I would later discover, the room itself was HUGE for Japan- especially the bathroom. The bathroom had lots of counterspace, a full bathtub, separate shower, packaged toiletries like a hairbrush, and a fancy toilet. The toilet has a heated seat (which I am actually do like, provided it is in my own quarters) complete with rinsing and drying functions. The Google office in Mountain View has these as well so I was already familiar with them. I also learned that most Japan hotels are big on the "Lucy and Ricky Ricardo" beds as I call them- two separate little twin beds and no single queen or kings. We finally got a queen bed at our last hotel in Kyoto where we stayed for 5 nights. The other two hotels we stayed in also had the separate beds. But the beds in our 5 star hotel were the HARDEST beds I have EVER slept on in my life. William, who served his mission for two years in Tokyo, said that his threadbare futon was more comfortable than these beds. Our most comfortable bed was the last bed, the queen one in Kyoto, which was also the least expensive hotel we stayed in.

But we had the most INCREDIBLE view from this room of the city, including Tokyo Tower- the yellowish orange building on the right, similar in structure to the Eiffel Tower.

All in all, given the view and the location of the hotel was unbeatable, especially since William only had to go down a few floors to work, and it was quite close to one of the main train and subway stations, making it convenient for us to travel around the city. But, we were glad that we weren't paying for it :-)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Little Mermaid Ballet

On Tuesday night, I was able to go to the second ballet of my SF ballet season tickets (I missed one show while I was in Japan but I'm so happy that my dear friend Nicole was able to use the ticket!!!) of "The Little Mermaid" with Dyan, Katie, and Maren. I am very familiar with the Hans Christen Anderson version from a fairly young age due to its version on Fairy Tale Theater by Shelly Duvall (a great series that deserves another post entirely) AND I was lucky enough to be able to see the actual Little Mermaid statue that is out in the waters of Copenhagen. BUT, I do have to say that I am glad that Disney changed the story almost entirely because the overall fairy tale is super dark and depressing and I feel that while we all have challenges in life, everything will eventually end on a happy note and not just be "sea foam." Even though I am very familiar with the story, I was STILL confused for the first part of the ballet because they added in this random character called "The Poet." My friend Maren wrote a great blog post about her perspective on the ballet, as well as a great photo of us that I am going to borrow and place on here :-) (Thanks Maren!!)

Before reading the synopsis at intermission, in my mind, the Poet was actually the ghost of the sailor looking back on the whole experience and seeing just how the Little Mermaid felt and some of her anguish from the situation. She was desperately in love with him and he cared for her, but not necessarily in the same romantic way that he felt for the princess. I thought that the ballet cast did an excellent job of showing this dynamic as I think that many of us, including myself, have deeply cared for someone who has not returned similar feelings. The anguish that the Little Mermaid felt was adequately portrayed in her dancing. She was so graceful while underwater and then managed to be so awkward while on land is a real testament to her skills. That being said, it was super distracting when she was only in a leotard with no tutu or skit/bottom because she is WAY too thin- like it was painful for me to watch her.

My favorite part was the first act where they were underwater. The way that they were dancing and moving their bodies completely gave the appearance of interacting with water. Its a good thing that William wasn't there or he would not have been able to have gotten past the fact that the mermen were wearing skirt/dresses. I did think it was a little odd, especially when the girls were wearing pants, but it still looked good so I was ok with it. What I was NOT okay with was the three guys dressed in black who were "carrying" around the Little Mermaid so that she would look like she was "swimming." It was a huge FAIL for me- more distracting than believable and I actually thought that her movements with just the super long pants or soaring through the air with one guy was enough. What would have been better was if they had suspended the Little Mermaid in some kind of harness while she floated and danced around stage. That would have been a better effect. I loved the staging of the play and how they replicated the sea, the boat, the land, and her trapped all white room.

My friend Katie was totally right was she said that the male Sea Witch looked like Darth Maul- because HE DID! He had the exactly same white bald head with red and black markings along the side of it. I have no idea why they decided to characterize him like that but I had a smile on my face every time he came on stage because he just looked like Darth Maul.

All in all, it was an okay performance. It wasn't my all time favorite but it also wasn't the worst ballet that I had ever seen. It was definitely unique and I am glad that I saw it but probably wouldn't see it again.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting to Japan

Leave it to us, we managed to have some major adventures even before we got to Japan. We had looked into getting a Japan Rail Pass for our trip and the morning of, we did the numbers and decided that it would be the best deal for us. The only catch is that you have to buy it before leaving for the U.S. It said online that you could buy the pass from your airline at the airport so we called Japan Airlines to ask and the guy said that they "might" have some- he wasn't sure. Well, we didn't want to chance it so we called a local Japanese travel agency in San Jose who was able to immediately get the passes ready for us. But, San Jose is 20 minutes away and we had less than an hour before we were supposed to leave. We budgeted extra time so my sweet friend Alecia came and picked us up later so that I could drive to and from San Jose to get the passes. We still managed to get to the airport in time for our flight and just out of curiosity, William asked the ticket agent if they had some rail passes to sell. The agent replied that they always have them for sale. The extra trip was totally worth it for me to know that we had them for sure because we our luck, the airport would have run out. We definitely maximized our that pass- we used it on the Shinkansen (what they call their bullet trains) from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Himiji, Kyoto to Hiroshima, and back to Tokyo and to the airport. We also used the pass to go to Nikko, Nara, and Miajima. It lasts for seven days and we used several times the value of what we paid for it. Just remember that you need to buy it BEFORE you leave the U.S. :-)

We lucked out and got premium economy class seats for the 11 hour flight!! They kindly upgraded us without us knowing so we were shocked when we sat down because we knew this was not what we had paid for. The premium economy on Japan Airlines basically just has much more leg room, wider seats, moveable lights, and a little greater ability to recline, though not as much as business or first class. Since it was a 777, we were able to watch movies and shows. I couldn't stomach finishing 2012- it was just so bad that I fell asleep. I also watched a movie about how every cut is so important in Japanese cooking. But I mainly slept and read. The food was ok as far as plane food goes. I didn't get very much sleep on the plane so I ended up going to bed quite early (9 pm) when we made it to our hotel on Wednesday night, March 3rd. By nature, I am very much a night owl except on this trip. Most of the temples and shrines in Japan close by 5, some earlier, so we generally woke up between 6 and 7 am and then would go non-stop until 8 or 9 pm at night. William is the best traveling companion because we both love to cram everything possible into our trip. And Japan is definitely a walking city with lots of stairs at the temples so I was just exhausted every night when we got back. I could not stay awake if I tried and William has stories of many funny conversations that I had with him while I was half asleep (most of which I don't remember). But don't worry, I'm back to my late night ways here :-)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

SF Chocolate Salon 2010

We're back after a fun filled vacation to JAPAN. Much, much more on that to come as we took over 1,300 photos :-)

We arrived on Friday and have somewhat adjusted to the time differences (William has been better). On Saturday we went to the San Francisco Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason. I was so excited for this that I bought our tickets was back in January (and it also helped that there was a rockin discount for early purchases). This was our second year and it was still good, although we thought that there was a little too much of the sea salt going on. That seemed to be one of the major trends, along with vegan chocolates (not tasty in my book) as well as unique flavored chocolates like sage (gross) and lavender brownies (not good either).

I had a celebrity chef sighting- I saw Elizabeth Faulkner, owner of Citizen Cake who was on Top Chef Masters and a frequent Top Chef judge, walking around. I didn't go up and talk to her because I still haven't been to her restaurant yet and it would be lame to have met her without ever tasting her food. It was just fun to have a sighting :-)

Our favorites this year were some of last years favorites as well as some new finds. My overall favorite was the key lime truffle from William Dean Chocolates, which was so unbelievably good that I consumed it all before giving William a taste of it (I'm so sorry sweetheart!!) I also loved this Coconut-Pineapple Caramel with Hawaiian Pink Sea Salt from Posh Chocolate (truly so unique but so good) but I could do without a little less of the sea salt (too much just detracts from the taste). It is sad that neither of these companies are local (one is in Florida and the other Montana) but it is probably better that way so that I wouldn't become enthralled with more sweets :-) We also bought a bar of the "Divine" white chocolate with strawberries that we discovered last year. It was definitely taste bud overload for us- and we will bring a water bottle with us next time because having that much chocolate brings on an incredible thirst!