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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TODAY IN JAPAN

My Japan Railway trip to Jindai Botanical Park follows at the end.  I'll begin by summarizing what is happening in Japan today:
  • The Nikkei is tanking, partially as a response to the recent sales tax increase from 5% to 8%, but the problem is deeper (there was a further 50 point drop yesterday, but recovered +87 today):
  • Yikes, the bird flu is here in southern Kyushu.  I was supposed to be in Miyazaki in four days, but decided not to go so far south on the Shinkansen.  In Kumamoto, 112,000 chickens were destroyed, as two farms were suddenly struck by an H5-type Avian Flu Virus.  Authorities have no clue how these birds were infected.  How dangerous is this virus to humans?  Not at all, it turns out, for only birds are affected.  There has never been even one case of avian flu in Japan, ever!  Here are 400 workers culling the flocks.
  • Kyushu Electric's Sendai (I'll be in Sendai in a week, but that is another Sendai, although it is indeed ironic, but my Sendai hotel is located only a few miles from Fukushima, scene of that nuclear catastrophe) nuclear plant in Kagoshima has tentatively been selected as the first to be fast-tracked for re-start, probably in August.  The local populace is rallying for nuclear, as they badly need this economic stimulus.  The two reactors are located right close to the open ocean.
  • I've long been anti-Abe, but here is another reason why.  His energy policy now touts COAL as a desirable fuel for electricity.  Japan has run a trade deficit for 20 consecutive months since the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, mainly because of fossil fuel importation, and mouths statements of clean coal to neutralize global warming arguments, while turning its back on the Kyoto Protocol for which it was responsible.  This is part of the tragedy of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Jindai Botanical Park is next to Jindai Temple, or Jindaiji, built in 733.  Soba (cold buckwheat noodle) at Yusui is a big attraction.  This was the first botanical park in Tokyo, and is noted for its variety of sakura and giant azalea colony of 12,000 plants, but is also known for dogwood trees, roses, wisteria and irises.  There are 100,000 of them in 4,500 varieties, each identified with a label.  Many endangered species are kept here, where slips can be purchased to take home.  It costs about $5 to enter, $2.50 if you're old.

Well, here are the best of my photos today:


I arranged with Keio Garden Place for a lunch of chu-toro sashimi, sushi and soba.  And…that is not water in what looks like a water bottle.  The cost above, around $50.  I had lunch at the bench to Pearl's right:


I was sitting under budding Wisteria trees.  The back view shows the sculpterer, Bussi, 1961:


"Pearl" is located between two acoustical features.  To the right are chimes that play Japanese music once an hour, while in front are 33 fountains which constantly provide relaxing sounds.  I met with the staff of the garden, and these two ladies promised to seek out the name of the model:


The cherry blossoms were two weeks beyond the peak, but there is so much variety, that the spotted scenes still were spectacular:


The azaleas were at peak:


In case you didn't know, rhododendrons are azaleas.  Ot course, there were many other colors:


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Monday, April 14, 2014

MUFA Day #8: Nagano

My Ultimate Fantasy Adventure, Day #8, was similar to #7.  I just caught the bullet train to Nagano, visited a Buddhist temple and saw some flowers.  My train trip has not yet really started, but already I've used as much value on my Japan Rail Pass as I totally paid.

Nagano in 1998 hosted the Winter Olympics,  I happened to be taking my sabbatical at Nokodai that year, as sponsored by Professor Tadashi Matsunaga.  He is now president of that University, in his second term.  I'll be having dinner with him tomorrow night.  A year ago, my MUGA Day #13 was lunch with Tadashi and his wife, Mayumi, at Narisawa, the best restaurant in Asia.  The photo to the left is of that lunch.

About Nagano, it is 106 miles west of Tokyo and I had an unagi bento with a can of  Asahi Dry Premiere and a cup of sake:



All you see above cost around $30.  I find that a little inebriation makes the trip more relaxing, maybe because I'm traveling 200 miles/hour, sort of like karaoke singing.  I can't imagine doing that sober.

The attraction in Nagano is Zenkoji Temple, built in the 7th century.  Interestingly enough, it was founded before Buddhism in Japan.  While the cherry blossoms were three days away from peak, the effect was good enough:


There was a marriage:


And some color:


I caught a bus to the temple, and walked mostly downhill back to the train station.  I stopped by a liquor store and asked for their #1 sake, which I had on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo with fish cake and peanuts:


Another enjoyable day.  I might add that I have not seen a drop of rain and the temperatures in Japan have been in the 50's.  The weather will remain fine for the next two weeks.

Tomorrow, back to Jindaiji to see Pearl's statue and have lunch with her:


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Sunday, April 13, 2014

MUFA Day #7: Niigata

I decided on Day #7 of My Ultimate Fantasy Adventure to initiate my Shinkansen journey and catch the bullet train to Niigata, about 200 miles northwest of Tokyo.  The round trip cost would have approached $300, but my two-week Green Card (first class) Japan Rail Pass could be used.  I paid around $600 for this pass, so, already, in only one small roundtrip, I covered half the cost of my two-week journey.  NOTE:  you need to purchase this pass at home before you land in Japan.

Niigata, with a population of 800,000, is a two hour Shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo towards the Sea of Japan.   I had a sake and mixed nuts.  

The best rice, koshihikari, and sake in the world come from Niigata.  At least the PR from this region boasts so.  The idea is that conditions here are ideal for growth:  cool and hot temperatures, snow waters, ideal soil.  However, in 1965 the Agano River running through Niigata suffered from methyl mercury poisoning, with 690 citizens exhibiting symptoms of Minamata disease.  It is generally not well-publicized that  Niigata was one of the four cities selected by the U.S. military for the atomic bomb drop

The cherry blossoms were at peak in this city.  Here a typical hanami (sakura picnic):


A yellow tulip:


On my way back, I had to try their rice, so had sushi and Niigata beer:


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Saturday, April 12, 2014

MUFA Day 6: Victor's

Decades ago, I had dinner at the St Francis in San Francisco, Victor's, and was mesmerized by the fog that hung just below the 32nd floor of the establishment.  Named after Victor Hirtzler, chef at the St Francis from the opening 110 years ago, the hotel not only survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but served breakfast that morning.

Well, tonight I had dinner at Victor's in the Tokyo Westin, and re-lived that experience with my best meal on this trip.  I started with a salad and an incredible truffles soup:


The restaurant was so organized, that they provided a personal menu of my table and menu:


The Matsuzaka beef topped with a delicate foie gras was spectacular, absolutely incredible::


I had a Kir Royale and Clos du Val Cab from California to complement this memorable meal.

Then, I went next door to Compass Rose and had a bit of my Nikka Yoichi 20-year single malt, the whiskey that a few years ago in Scotland was selected as the best scotch in the entire world, including Scotland:


Included was a Cuban at my favorite seat with a view of the Tokyo Tower.  I can go on and on, but this was  a night I'll forever remember..

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Friday, April 11, 2014

MUFA Day #6: The Japan Times

My flight from Bangkok to Tokyo Narita was totally uneventful, which is the best kind of international transition.  Here is a work of art from the airport in Bangkok:


My Thai Air executive club snack:


I then boarded that giant Airbus 380...


…beginning with some Piper-Heidsieck champagne.  The service, amenities and meals were outstanding.  However, business class is on the second deck, and while I had a window seat, you can't really look down.


I landed at Narita and got through all the processing very quickly, bought a limousine bus ticket to the Tokyo Westin and had only a two minute wait.

At the hotel I had some anxious moments, because I had left Thailand three days early on a Friday, and this hotel always has elaborate weddings on Saturdays where rooms are subscribed well ahead of time.  My platinum status worked, for I was snuck in without a reservation for the full five day period.  The Tokyo Westin Executive Club is like returning home, for the staff all knows me.  I had my dinner here:  glass of champagne, a Jack Daniels with grapefruit, salad, marinated salmon, garlic rice, potatoes and steak.  These were tiny things, so I had two servings of each.  All for free.

Then breakfast today, which came with the room, was fabulous, and the azaleas are in bloom:


As I'm in Japan earlier, I made adjustments to my two-week Shinkansen (bullet train) tour, and for those tracking my whereabouts:
  • Niigata:  Sunday, April 13
  • Nagano
  • Tokyo
  • Kyoto
  • Nagasaki
  • Osaka
  • Sendai
  • Aomori
  • Tokyo, where I return to the Tokyo Westin on April 26.
Well, that was a long-winded ramble, finally leading to the Japan Times, an English newspaper launched in 1897.  During World War II, this paper served as a propaganda outlet for the Imperial government.  It is now totally independent, with 160 staff writers, and linked to the New York Times.  Here is what the Japan Times reported today:
  • Sakura from Space Blooms Early:  Interestingly enough, the International Space Station might have found a potential market commodity.  In 2008 pits from 265 celebrated cherry blossom trees where sent to the ISP.  They were planted on return, and several trees now four years old produced flowers six years ahead of normal schedule.  Scientists are baffled.
  • Apocalypse Near?  There are signs that China's property and stock markets will soon collapse.  This could well be the Year of the Panda Bear Market.  Again, very much worth your reading while.
  • Sales Plunge.  As predicted, the 60% increase in the Japan sales tax (from 5% to 8%) on April 1 is seriously affecting sales.  Major department stores have already experienced a 25% drop.
  • The United Nations climate panel is beginning to consider Plan B, geoengineering, to prevent global warming.  It was almost six years ago that I suggested so in one of my Huffington Post articles.  Sure, this sounds like the ravings of a mad scientist, but Plan A--voluntary slashing of carbon dioxide--is NOT WORKING!  We might not ever have to take that step, but it makes sense to develop possible strategies if Plan B becomes the only solution.  Oh, Al Gore is giving a talk on the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus on April 15 at 7PM.
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Tropical Cyclone Ita, now at 85 MPH, is weakening, and will make landfall north of Cairns, pass west  of the city, then return to the ocean to brush Townsville further south:


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