Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquake Wakes the Blog

Sometimes, it takes extraordinary circumstances to make you realize the simple things in life. In this case, it took an earthquake to make me realize that I have been neglecting my blog!

To be precise, I'm talking about the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck eastern Japan on Friday, 11th March. The damage caused by the earthquake itself was minimal compared to the ensuing tsunami which washed away everything in its path and left a trail of destruction. The images on TV were heartbreaking and alarming. As this was the footage being seen by everyone back home in Malaysia, naturally they were all worried. It took some reassuring calls and multiple Facebook updates to let everyone know that I was alright, safe in sound in distant Tokyo.

Smoke behind the Fuji TV building in Odaiba right after the quake & stand-still traffic in Tokyo on the walk home

Tokyo was not completely spared the wrath of nature as we had large tremors as well. No tsunami ensued but the quake meant that the trains would be out of service till safe operation could be resumed. I had to walk home from my office to my dorm and it took almost 6 hours in the cold with dress shoes. The trip was made bearable with a few stops in between, including one at Outback Shinagawa for dinner, and the company of a precious few buddies. Many in the office had no choice but to spend the night at the office and head home the next morning since they lived far away.

The weekend was spent mostly indoors watching the news for updates and monitoring the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that is experiencing cooling system failures. I also decided to cook, which along with running, is what I like to do when I'm bored, lazy, free or all of the above. We finally get to how I decided to rekindle my blog:

Monday morning, I got ready for work and walked to the JR Tsurumi station, which was shut down, and then to the Keikyu Tsurumi station, which had 300m lines of people waiting. I then called the office and was told it's OK if I did not come in since the train service was intermittent and there was supposed to be rolling blackouts all over the place. So I came back home, had my breakfast and went back to sleep. Went for a run, which I like to do when I'm bored, and cooked, which I also like to do when I'm bored, and was surfing the net when I remembered my blog!

I thought this would be an appropriate story to write, however ordinary, as this is one weekend I will never forget. Though I was spared the major wrath of the quake and was far from mortal danger, I was reminded of how fragile life can be, and how man stands no chance in the face of nature. I must say that some things were put back into perspective for me and I can say that it feels great to be alive.

Now lets hope I can add blogging to my list of things to do when bored, along with cooking and running!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February comes and February goes

Well, February is dear to me for obvious reasons. I was born on this month some years ago, back when the Berlin Wall was still erect and people had not heard of email let alone 'blogs'! Well thats history, so lets fast forward to 2009! Here I am in Japan, away from home for the first time on my birthday since even during college days I commuted from home. Apparently the end of January and early February were fertile times all over, since there were 3 other colleagues who had birthdays within a week before or after mine. 25 'gaijin' joined in as we went to World Porters in Yokohama for an Italian buffet at the Fiesta Garden. It was 2000yen per head, which thanks to my buddies, me and the other birthday people did not have to pay! We took up a quarter of the restaurant space and went all out for 90 minutes! I have already written about Malaysians and buffets, but apparently all Asians share the same attitude lol! The desserts alone were worth the price of the buffet as there was ice cream (7 flavours with toppings!), crepe (make your own), cakes, jelly and the pick of the bunch, the heavenly cream puffs! The soft drinks were free flow and the buffet spread was decent, if not incredible.

The company of my friends was more filling than the food (Ok, I won't get all emo on you guys). We all went back lethargic that night, struggling to fit into the elevator(as one pic below shows), filled to the brim!

I did not have the luxury of sleeping in the following day since a bunch of us had plans to snowboard! Woke up at 5 and was in Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano by 6.40am.
I was joined by 5 other snowboard enthusiasts as the shinkansen sped west towards Mt. Asama, the volcano that had exploded a few days prior. As we reached Sakudaira after a 75 minute ride , the volcano was visible, and still spewing smoke! I woke up that morning in Yokohama and thanks to the bullet train, we were on the slopes by 9am. 4 of us took some beginner lessons to get our basic footing before going it on our own. A full day of falling and getting up again followed us I tried to get a hang of the toeside turn. We stopped at 4.30pm and took the shuttle bus back to Sakudaira Station and managed to get seats on the 5.30pm shinkansen back to Tokyo. We were back in Tokyo by 7 and in Tsurumi before 8pm, aching all over and wondering why we spend so much to get bruises all over our bodies! But once the pain subsides, you start aching a different ache, aching to go snowboarding again! As one friend put it, aches are a sign that you are improving! lol.

February was also an eventful month as far as our training was concerned. Among other things, we had Six Sigma training, where we shot rubber balls with catapults and then used Six Sigma methodology to improve our shooting to achieve a smaller standard deviation, thus improving performance. We also had a robot building competition where we built robots with Lego and programmed them to go through an obstacle course, retrieve a soda can and transport it to the target area. Our robot achieved the goal, but was extremely slow compared to some of the other robots so we took consolation in having made it to the end.

We had group presentations and ended the first half of February with a manufacturing workshop where you're given a cylindrical and cuboidic metal pieces to create whatever your mind can conjure up. The aim was to let us feel the joy of creating something from scratch apart from letting engineers know how hard hands-on work was. It was also an eye-opener in the sense that not all designs on paper can be transformed into workable models on the machines. Tools at our disposal were primitive, only saws, hammers and smoothers. I decided to make an Olympic flame with the Olympic rings formed from the cylindrical piece. I painted mine to make it resemble the Olympic logo and turned out pretty well in the end, if I may say so myself. Some of the others had some pretty nifty ideas and churned out some cool pieces. I couldn't resist bringing my camera and using selective color photography hehe. Here's mine and some of my favorites by the others.

The rest of February will be spent performing on the job training at my future designation before heading back to the training center in March for the home stretch. I had the most romantic Valentine's Day, all alone in my room finishing up my report to hand in to my superiors on Monday! No big deal, since most of the hype for Valentine's comes from chocolate companies and greeting card companies who make a fortune on that day. But then again, I'm just being sour grapes lol. Well just like Valentine's, February comes and February goes, where it takes you, is entirely up to you....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Of Chi Ku Teh and Peking Duck

Being away from home is a test in itself, not to mention when its festival time. I had the privilege of celebrating Deepavali 3 days before flying off but my fellow Malaysian buddies were not so fortunate. Chinese New Year was around the corner, but again, we had to work on Monday so we decided to bring forward the reunion dinner, or what the Chinese call Tuan Yuan Fan. It is a tradition that fosters closeness and emphasises the significance of family ties. Our Tuan Yuan Fan was shared by 11 nomads from across Asia, carving out a living in Japan. (for a complete list of culprits, refer to where Kim has described us all in detail as well as singing the praises of my fish curry, lol!)
I was fooling around with some features on my camera and came up with the idea to snap this picture.What is Chinese New Year without Mandarin oranges? (Thanks Alfred!)

After a sumptuous meal of Bak Ku Teh (made with chicken so its technically Chi Ku Teh!), Prawns, Soup, Vege, Fish Curry and Butter Pork for pandi lovers, we were cleaning up when at that very moment, Kim received a courier package from home filled with, get ready for this, Chinese New Year cookies. Talk about timing! Vendy whipped out the cookies she had received from home earlier and we were back into nostalgic mode, every bite bringing back some memory of red ang pow packets, firecrackers, jam tarts and huge hampers.One of the many majestic gates of Chinatown Yokohama

We headed back and met up later in the evening to head to Matomachi Chukagai, or Chinatown in Yokohama, the largest Chinatown in Japan. I had been there once before but did not have time to look around so this time, I decided to have a look around and what did I find? Meehoon! I instantly bought a medium-sized packet, images of meehoon goreng already running through my head. I walked out of the shop and right outside I found a man selling keropok udang, you know the pink kind, and I bought it too!
Hustle and Bustle of Chinatown

A tout on the street convinced us to try a Chinese Buffet, serving almost a 100 different types of dishes.

GM Lim, the Sifu

Malaysians are known to throng open houses and jostle for free food, so just imagine what we would do in a buffet that we PAID for! To get full value for our money, we ordered so many dishes that the table didn't fit with the Peking Duck, among all the dishes, deserving some honorable mention. When we were finally done, I needed a helping hand to stand up but it was good thing that I got to walk some of it off on the 10 minute stroll to the station.
The signboard of the Buffet

Nothing beats the real thing, and by no means was our celebration a substitute to the one we would've had back home. What it was is just some consolation, and brought to my mind something a friend said to me only yesterday, "If you don't have what you like, learn to like what you have!". I hope I said it right, Jivan. Anyway, in a recent email, one of my Japanese teachers back home summed up very beautifully how we were to cope with life away from home. He said that since there were 6 of us who came together, any joy that we had would be shared among us and be multiplied by 6 bringing us 6 times the bliss, while any sorrow or pain would also be shared but in turn be divided by 6 and its extent reduced significantly! Brilliantly said by Seraku sensei. Coming here, we found that we had not only 6, but many others to multiply our joy and divide our sadness with. Coming together from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philipines, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, India and Macau, we'll be forever grateful that our paths crossed here in Japan. Gong Xi Fa Cai to all! May we be as resilient, patient, and mighty as the Ox that the Year will stand for.Who ate the cookies from the cookie jar?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fuji 5 Lakes (Fujigoko)

It's sad but true. Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan! To add insult to injury, we had a presentation on Christmas so its understandable that when the winter holidays finally came. I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and take it easy for a few days. While surfing the ever so handy, I came across Fuji 5 Lakes or Fujigoko, as it is known in Japanese. I am not gonna bore you with the history of the place, as that is readily available if you click on the link, so I'll proceed right on to my 'jolly good' vacation!
I needed accomplices, so I called up some 'orang Malaysia', who have chosen to remain anonymous in this blog, thus the shot of everyone's shoes!
Naah, I'm just kidding, you'll be seeing their pictures later on. We met up at Shinjuku Station, the busiest station in all of Japan, and got on a bus that would take us towards the Fuji region. The bus ride took almost 2 hours and about 90 minutes into the ride, Fuji-san became visible in the distance. We were in good fortune as the weather was perfect, and to top it off, there was a cloud hovering over the summit of Fuji, crowning it in all its glory! Now, what sets Fuji apart from other great mountains of the world is that, like Kilimanjaro, it isn't part of a range and stands alone among lesser hills. Looking at this picture, you can also tell that it is amazingly symmetrical, thus adding to its appeal. We were told that winter is the best time to see Fuji-san, as the snow-capped peak is not as impressive when the weather gets warmer.
We arrived at Kawaguchiko, the most easily accessible of the 5 lakes, and checked into K's House, a backpacker's inn. We had not had lunch but it seemed to be the last thing on our mind since we wanted to catch the last boat ride on the lake, at 4.00pm. The ride produced splendid views of the mountain, made all the more prettier by the setting sun. After dinner, we went to an 'onsen' located near the hostel to soak ourselves in the hot springs. 'Onsen' are hot springs that are extremely popular in Japan. Onsen are intriguing to foreigners and deserves a post on its own, so lets put a rain check on that.
On the following day we started our day at the Narusawa Ice Caves,a subterranean cave able to store ice at any time of the year, used as a refrigerator from ancient times. We then made our way to Iyashi no Sato Nenba, a 1:1 scale of an ancient Japanese village destroyed the last time Fuji exploded. Fuji is a volcano, in case you didn't know, but has long become inactive. The village is now a tourist spot with each house showcasing a different part of Japanese culture. I for one, was impressed with the Silk House, the Doll House, and of course the house with the ancient Japanese costumes! You guys have got to understand how hard it was for me to choose these pictures out of the hundreds I took, but those of you on my Facebook will be able to see a larger collection. After the village, we went to a park with ice sculptures, if you could call it that. Below is our attempt to melt the ice!

True to our roots as Malaysians, we never stopped snapping away with our cameras. We had 8 cameras among the 10 of us, the prize of the bunch being Ryan's SLR which produced some of our best shots. We could not help it, since everywhere we turned, we were faced with amazingly beautiful scenery, not to mention the fact that no matter where you are in Kawaguchiko, Fuji-san is visible. The 'jumping' shot on the right is one of many all of us took, thanks again to Ryan. After another late lunch we walked to the Kawaguchiko Bridge to get a glimpse of the sunset. Again, we took tons of photos and spent the rest of the night indoors reminiscing about, what else, but home! On the next day, New Year's Eve, a few of the guys got up at the crack of dawn and made their way to the bridge again to catch the sunrise from behind Fuji-san. After waking them up at 5, I went back to sleep to catch a few more zzzzz's. This is one of the shots of the sunrise. I know what you're thinking, that I should be kicking myself for missing such a sight, but its too late to think about that now, isn't it? I too can attest to the fact that sleep is overrated. Anyway, when the others got back, the girls and I made breakfast for everyone, scrambled eggs and toast. We set off after breakfast to Mt. Kachi Kachi, a hill if you ask me, adjacent to Mt. Fuji. The cable car took us to the top and it was the clearest view of Fuji-san we had seen yet. After yet another round of photos, we decided to hike down rather than take the cable car. It was close to 11am already and we had tickets for the 12.40pm bus back to the city. We got back to the hostel, packed, and bid sayonara to Kawaguchiko, vowing to come back in the summer to climb Mt. Fuji. It was New Year's Eve and on the bus ride home, I couldn't help reflecting on the year that had past. 2008 had been an incredible year of highs and lows. Ending the year with a splendid vacation, seemed to me, like a fitting end to 2008, the year of the PIG! To find out how I began the Year of the Ox, 2009, refer to my previous post.
Here are some of my favourite shots:
The one on the left being the view from Mt. Kachi Kachi, where lovebirds ring the bell for long lasting relationships. Sadly, I had to ring it alone lol!

"Shadows grow so long beneath my eyes"-Peter Frampton, Baby I Love Your way.

Us trying to look like the cast of Lost, or rather

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Dawn of a New Year

It was the first sunrise of 2009 from the Land of the Rising Sun. A lot of firsts on this first post of mine! The scene at the beach at Chigasaki was akin to the angels lining the beach in City of Angels, their silhouettes eerily beautiful in the light of dawn. Running from the station at Chigasaki, which is about 20 minutes by train from Yokohama, we were chasing time not to miss the sunrise. Reaching the beach, and still running, the sun emerged on the horizon at 6.51am, exact to the minute that the weather forecasts had predicted. Leave it to the Japanese to be precise!

We hold in our hands the power to do great things.

Staying up all night after watching the fireworks at Yokohama Harbor was painstakingly difficult, made bearable only by the company of the boys. The fireworks were mediocre to say the least and we spent the rest of the night at an izakaya chatting away. Seeing the sunrise though, made up for everything as it was sublimely beautiful and seemed to me, the perfect way to start the year.

"Mama always said you can tell a lot from a man's shoes." -Forrest Gump

With old resolutions yet to be fulfilled, new ones are made as we embark on another 365 days that will define our lives. Lets hope that many years down the road, when we look back on 2009, it brings a smile to our faces. 2008 definitely did. As I begin my first year in Japan, I begin this blog to etch my memories and encounters in my new home, away from home....