Thursday, March 18, 2010

Photo-Blogging: A 365-Day Project

Hello! Hisashiburi desu ne (long time, no see!) I admit my blogging has been quite lackluster these days, so I have pledged to be a much more active blogger, but I needed some inspiration. It becomes difficult, the longer one stays in a different country, to prioritize one's stories and experiences and offer them in a concise enough way to keep people's attention. It can also be exhausting to peruse through massive photo albums of friends and family, even if the photos are interesting. For these reasons, the 365 Project called out to me. Started in 2004, it is as simple as posting one photo every day for a year. This way, I can choose one photo and not be stuck uploading tons of them, and it will make for an interesting album one year from now. I will be (hopefully) able to recall the stories behind each photo, and it will be a great treasure to have. I wish I had started earlier, but hey, there's no time like the present! The link is:

I will start posting today, and I pledge to post photos only taken on the respective day. Safe for traveling places where I can't hook up my camera, or intensive surgery, I should be able to hook up and post every day. And so today, Thursday March 18, 2010, I begin my year-long photo journal that will give those back in Canada and here in Japan a glimpse of my daily life here. Oh, and as I am spending 4 days in Osaka and Kyoto beginning tomorrow, this album should get interesting very quickly! Come check out James' Project 365.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Quiet Place in the Sun

So, it has been an eternity since I last posted on my blog. Frankly, it is not because of a lack of things to post, but rather an overabundance which makes it difficult to summarize, let alone choose. I had also been focusing my thoughts on writing diatribes about the double-edged swords of Japanese social culture, but I decided to get back into the swing on a light, positive note. After all, I am still enjoying myself and have a lot to be happy about.

Following that note, I also enjoy sharing the things that I love. Usually it is a one-on-one thing where I will share different things with different people, depending on their likes and dislikes. However, once in a while, I come across something that is worthy of a town crier-like announcement.

The end of June marked Leaver's Weekend for Toyama JETs. It's a big farewell party to those leaving this and next month, and my friend from Fukui came to take part in the festivities. We didn't have to leave for the event until the mid-afternoon, so decided to hit up a coffee joint to read and study Japanese to pass the time. I suggested a small, new place along the river that I had strolled past several times. The staff always seemed to notice my presence walking past, and it felt as if very little effort would need to be made to launch into conversation (a feeling that foreigners often have in Japan, and one rarely bores of). We grabbed our books and notebooks and started the three minute walk to this place from my apartment. Yes, it is very close, just up the stream that runs from Toyama Castle, down past my apartment and beyond.

When we arrived at KOFFE (a hybrid of Koji, the owner, and their principal menu item), we were immediately greeted by the co-owners. Koji is a quiet but extremely pleasant man who carries an expression when he speaks to you like he is about to reveal the best news you've ever heard. His partner is named Sai, which is short for Saiko, but she shortened it after they moved to Manhattan and people began doing double-takes when she introduced herself. They lived in the Big Apple for two years before moving back to Japan only recently. Sai is a Toyama local, whereas Koji is from Nagoya. I realized after only a few minutes from when I sat down that this place was more than a coffeehouse. It would be my refuge from the somewhat tedious mechanics of Japanese work-life. It would be my quiet place in the sun.

Their menu is simple and very limited. You can choose from a handful of various blends that they roast on-site in the morning. They also have iced coffee (a staple in Japanese food culture) and cafe-au-lait. Sai is also a formidale baker, and prepares fresh pound cakes, cookies, meringues, and the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. Japan is certainly familiar with cheesecake, but not all that familiar with *good* cheesecake. Sai's recipe is decadent and addictive, to the point that I have made them promise to not let me order it more than once a week. They alternate between regular and coffee-infused cheesecake, and both have their ups (but no downs). Oh, and the coffee is rich, full-bodied, delicious. Nothing like you'd get at the convenience store (and combinis have loads of selection) or even the local Starbucks. KOFFE is the real deal.

As amazing as the coffee is however, it is not what draws me to the place on a now regular basis. After all, I have a coffee-maker at home. It is the atmosphere and the people at Koffe that make it such a special experience over and over. The decor is minimalist. White walls and light pine furniture, accented tastefully by brightly coloured books, placed loosely along the ledges. Light bulbs hang naked from white wiring. The front entrance slides open completely, tables flow to the edge, virtually outside. The 2nd floor is cozy, hardwood floors and more simple but tasteful decor. Something you would see in one of those coffee table books, "Places you Wish you Could be Right Now".

The focal point on the main floor is the large, glossy red and black bean roaster in the back corner. It compliments the simple white shades, while reminding the customer of how fresh that cup-a-joe they're sipping really is. Koji got it in California and had it shipped (for a fortune, I'm sure) to Toyama. He told me he'd teach me how to roast some beans if I ever showed up before they opened.

Koji and Sai are also great because they automatically turn off the conventional Japanese customer-service mentality when foreigners show up. They're still wonderful, but it feels casual, genuine and warm. Not to say that they are not greatful for the business they get from the Japanese community, they are, but there is a strong status quo when it comes to customer service in Japan, often leading us foreigners to miss the more casual approach back home. KOFFE also attracts some interesting returning customers. Kei, for example, is an older fellow with long whispy grey hair held under a blue toque (or beany or whatever you Americans call it). He often wears overalls and a necklace around his neck stringing together a large assortment of keys - something he employs as a mnemonic device when getting others to remember his name. You almost imagine there to be a train whistle strung along there with the keys, it would certainly be fitting. I've also met Sai's mother, several Japanese who have lived abroad, and a pleasant couple from America around my age, who Koji and Sai had been raving about when I first showed up. When we eventually showed up there at the same time, they brought along bread they made in their rice cooker to share with Koji and Sai. Kei showed up with bushels of lavender for the couple. I came along with a CD of Diana Krall tunes I copied for Koji (he likes female vocalists, as I found out when he popped in a Stacey Kent CD and I started singing along). It seemed everyone was exchanging things. I felt so comforted that evening, like I was at home with my friends. It struck me then that Koji and Sai were not your average business-owners.

I can't fully capture in words how amazing this place is, and how awesome it was to have found it. I have introduced several of my friends to KOFFE and they have always returned, often bringing others along. As I sit and read my book, I often overhear customers explaining in Japanese that they heard from someone else about the coffee and just had to try it out. For a new, little place off the beaten path and not near any other commercial buildings, it keeps a steady flow of customers; a testament to what quality product, simply beautiful atmosphere and delightful staff can bring.

Koffe is located just off the tram road running South from Toyama Station toward the castle. Walk South on the tram road until you hit the stream, then turn right and walk less than two minutes. Koffe is on your right.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008


I have been ignoring my blogsponsibilities, but it has been a crazybusy June and an oppressively hot July. The heat really is nasty and the humidity, combined with the lack of decent air-conditioning in most places, makes for a barely tolerable Summer. It's not so terrible once you adapt to it. If your goal is to not sweat buckets, you're screwed. But if you take the heat as you would the rain without an umbrella, when you just say "fuckit!" and go on walking, then you find it is not as daunting as it first seemed.

I also find that doing activities in the extreme heat helps quite a bit. For example, I go for runs in broad daylight up on a plateau of land along the river. I can practically hear my skin sizzle and I return home after each run looking like I got caught in a rainstorm, but it's fun.

More interestingly, I recently took up taiko drumming. The taiko is an ancient Japanese drum which emits a bass sound, quite like the timpani. It has been used in festivals and rituals for centuries, but only in the 20th Century did taiko bands - comprised solely of taiko drummers performing together - emerge. A professional taiko drummer must follow an extremely rigorous workout and diet, and pro drummers are in extremely good shape. It looks easy at first, hitting these big drums with wooden mallets, but it is quite exhausting, a great workout in itself, and takes a toll on your hands (just ask the numerous wounds).

I first became enamored with the taiko in the most superficial way: through an arcade game that uses the taiko drum to provide the beat to popular pop songs of Japan. I even went so far as to purchase the PS2 version of the game (complete with mini drums and sticks), which became a hit at my university pad. I promised myself when I came to Japan that I would take it up, but finding a Japanese taiko group willing to educate and train a foreigner with little Japanese competence is not the easiest thing. When I actually set out on a hunt however, it sort of fell in my lap. I now train with an amateur group (amateur = they are good, but they have day jobs) and we train at a famous Shinto shrine in Toyama. It's truely a mystical experience. This weekend, I attend taiko bootcamp out in the mountains, and it will prove to be a whopper of a "nihongo challenge" (the term we give here to exchanges where we must rely solely on our Japanese). I think it will be great, though, and good training for my first public performance at an upcoming festival in September. Many foreigners come here with the dream of integrating themselves in a truly Japanese activity. I'm elated that mine is being fulfilled.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

June 16th!

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Into The Wild: more than a movie

Recently, I discovered a critically-acclaimed film, based on an equally acclaimed book. Into The Wild is directed by Sean Penn and features Emile Hirsch playing the lead role of Chris McCandless, a Dean's List graduating student with tons of potential, coming from a well-to-do family. Unhappy with the criteria of living that his parents place on him and his sister, including an overwhelming importance placed on "things", Chris decides to leave, and leave it all behind him. When I say leave it all, I kid you not. Anywho, I shall not spoil any of the movie, but I highly recommend it. For those of you that know me well enough, I love sharing things I enjoyed and making recommendations to friends and family. I wouldn't go so far as to rave about a film in my blog, but this one warrants such praise.

The cinematography, acting, story, music (including original songs performed by Eddie Veder,) are all phenomenally put together. It is based on a true story, and one that isn't a far cry from other adventure stories we have read or witnessed on-screen in past years. I suppose what sets Into the Wild apart is its explicit philosophy. It is unapologetically anti-establishment and really sheds light (and darkness) on what it means to take a step back, away from the things that we imbue with meaning that was never there, and value instead the relationships formed with others who have done the same. To step back even further, away from social interaction, and be one with nature, is an adventure within itself.

Although I didn't begin packing my camping gear and non-perishable food supplies when I finished the movie, I did buy the book. The movie was an eye-opener for what exists when you strip away the superficial exterior that we have so often become accustomed to in our daily lives.