Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tsunami Dog - An Unwavering Loyalty

This video went viral (like most astounding things on the Internet) a few days after the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It totally broke my heart as I watched it and like many others, whether they are animal-lovers or not, find myself moved beyond words.

A screen capture of the two canine survivors and a story which touched the whole world.

Two dogs miraculously survived the onslaught of the devastating tsunami that swept their town (like so many others along the northeastern coast of Japan). Two Japanese reporters combing through the wreckage in Arahama town came across a scruffy and weary white and brown spaniel, which had obviously survived unimaginable horrors and lived to tell its tale. When the dog spotted the reporters it came up to them and barked at them, like it was warning them away, and returned to the side of a comatose white dog lying on the ground. By this time, everyone feared the worst, but the spaniel sat stoically by its side, unbending, in the most protective manner. This was despite the fact that the spaniel had been severely traumatised - it was shivering badly throughout. To the relief of the reporters and viewers, the white dog later stirred and lifted its head, but it was visibly injured. His loyal friend greeted him by giving him a pat on his head with a tender paw, bringing a sudden collective lump to all our throats. At one point in the video, the reporter commented "This is so difficult to watch." I totally agree.

In the face of the massive human toll, we tend to forget our "other best friends" - the pets which were mostly left to fend for themselves. Those which manage to survive were likely to have lost their families and homes in the disaster, or got separated from their surviving owners. How does a dog (or a cat for that matter) comprehend what had just happened? That their safe world turned upside down in a moment and everything they know was literally swept away. How do they deal with the trauma, how do they survive the aftermath? This video amply shows how the animals deal with it, and come through with such unbelievable fortitude. How is it possible that against a backdrop of absolute ruin, and survival is an uncertainty, that the spaniel continues to stand firm to protect his injured and defenseless friend? Hachiko was a legend for his loyalty to his human master. These dogs are the latest canine legends for their loyalty to one another. 

The story has a happy ending. According to various sources on the Internet and newswires, both dogs have been rescued but are placed in separate shelters.

The Japanese have been AMAZING in the face of such enormous adversity, and even their CANINES are total troopers! Here's praying that the two doggies are safe and will either be reunited with their families or find good homes later.
You can watch the video here (and English translation provided below):

English Translation from Yahoo! News
We are in Arahama area. Looks like there is a dog. There is a dog. He looks tired and dirty. He must have been caught in the tsunami. He looks very dirty.
He has a collar. He must be someone's pet. He has a silver collar. He is shaking. He seems very afraid.
Oh, there is another dog. I wonder if he is dead.
Right there. There is another dog right next to the one sitting down. He is not moving. I wonder. I wonder if he is alright.
The dog is protecting him.
Yes. He is protecting the dog. That is why he did not want us to approach them. He was trying to keep us at bay.
I can't watch this. This is very difficult to watch.
Oh. Look. He is moving. He is alive. I am so happy to see that he is alive.
Yes! Yes! He is alive.
He looks to be weakened. We need to them to be rescued soon. We really want them rescued soon.
Oh good. He's getting up.
It is amazing how they survived the tremendous earthquake and tsunami. It's just amazing that they survived through this all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Norwegian Wood - A Novel

Like the main protagonist, Toru Watanabe, of "Norwegian Wood", I am also a voracious reader (of fiction only though). I estimate that I have probably read two to three thousand (maybe more) books up till now (which translates to about an average of 100 books a year from the time I was 7. ) But unlike Watanabe, I am not a great fan of "literary" novels like "The Great Gatsby",  "Jude the Obscure", etc., which is too heavy going (and boring!!!) for me, since I read mostly to relax, not to think. Not that I dislike all "literary" classics - some of them made it to my all-time favourites' list like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", George Orwell's "1984", John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", Louisa Alcott's "Little Women" and many more. But generally my tastes in books veer towards the trashy and the pedestrian. I would choose Dan Brown over Thomas Hardy any day, or read the stupid "Twilight" series over "The Virgin Suicides" (both of which I read). Sad, but true. AND I only read non-fiction books when I was forced to by teachers in school.

But I have gone ahead of myself in this post. Since the chances of the Samurai and I being able to visit Japan this year are close to zero (even if we wanted to, there would be an uproar in the family), we have been doing a lot of "Japanese" things in Singapore - eating at Japanese restaurants, buying Japanese DVDs to watch at home, and upon the recommendation of my girlfriend, I bought the e-book version of Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori) by one of Japan's most famous authors, Haruki Murakami. I am embarrassed to say that although I am a Japano-phile, I have never read Japanese fiction before (Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't count since it was NOT written by a Japanese). But I guess I can plead that 1) I can't read Japanese; 2) My Chinese sucks enough to hamper me in reading the Chinese version; but since there is now an English translated novel, I have no more excuses.

According to my girlfriend, Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, is apparently the most widely read book in Japan, with 1 in 3 adult Japanese having read the book. In a nutshell, Norwegian Wood is about young love set against the backdrop of the tumultuous times of late 1960s Japan, with Toru Watanabe at the centre of it all. But it is certainly not the typical trashy romance novels I am used to reading, even though it is peppered with A LOT of sexual activity (Some critics who panned the novel called it "soft porn"). Rather, the lyricism and almost hypnotic story telling with its twists and turns makes this book a cut above the rest. So many things to note on so many levels, yet the story is surprisingly easy to read and I finished it within 24 hours.


Yet by the end it made me feel depressed. It was like reading The Virgin Suicides all over again, with a record 4 characters committing the dastardly deed over the course of the story. I know Japan has one of the highest (if not THE highest) suicide rate in the world but it seemed like the ONLY solution for all the crazy, miserable or lovelorn people. In the case of Watanabe's high school best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself at seventeen, and whose death sparked off the chain of events in the novel, his motive remained a complete mystery till the end. Murakami instead focused on the impact his suicide had on Watanabe and his girlfriend, Naoko, on how they both dealt with the aftermath and each other as the ones left behind. Watanabe turned out to be the survivor, but his constant struggle with his self-imposed loneliness in the busy city of Tokyo was hard to watch, His tentative friendship and eventual redeeming romance with the second female lead Midori was lovely to behold and the most compelling of all storylines.

On the other hand, Naoko's on-off relationship with Watanabe and her deadly spiral into depression irritated me to no end. Many times I wanted to slap her out of her own self-absorbed misery. Okay, I got it, she was traumatised not just by Kizuki's death but also had the misfortune to have her elder sister commit suicide too. If anyone had the best reasons to go bonkers, it would be her. Still I did not quite understand why Watanabe would be so obsessed over her - perhaps the simplest reason was that it was a shallow boy's first love, based on looks alone. Who cared that she was mopey and corpse-like with zero ounce of personality? (Not surprising since most men think with the head below?!)

Thankfully other characters in the novel were markedly more interesting, from Naoko's friend in the sanatorium, Reiko, and Watanabe's morally ambivalent college senior, Nagasawa. I also found it interesting to have a story written from a male point of view, and while sometimes slow, the insight to Watanabe's life, moving from his dorm to college classes to his workplaces was truly fascinating and engaging. I was not so interested in the political aspects of the book, since I am neither from the country nor born during those times. It helped that the prose was beautifully written, the descriptions vivid, yet without the hindrance of big words for the reader to stumble over. Now I am truly inspired to master the Japanese language so that I can read the original novel to see if anything was lost in translation. I doubt it would be in the near future though, but it is always good to have a goal to work towards.

And oh, why was the title "Norwegian Wood"? Unlike my first stupid guess that it was set in Norway, it was actually a Beatles song which was a favourite of Naoko's. Unfortunately I am not familiar with this song at all, but I am sure there are probably more literary connections. And maybe because Naoko finally hanged herself in the woods. (Adios, sayonara!!!)

The ending is vague, which spoiled my enjoyment of the book somewhat since I prefer clear cut endings. Till now, I cannot make up my mind whether it is a positive or negative ending. Just like the movie Inception. Anyone has ideas on this?

Now I shall try to find a more upbeat Murakami book to read.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan's Goodwill Capital

Taken from Visit Japan 2010 Facebook page from a sympathetic fan.

As of this moment, 116 countries (!!!) have offered some measure of assistance (manpower, money, or equipment) to Japan's disaster relief. This is a staggering number in view that it translates to more than HALF of the world, which is unprecedented. Even my normally stingy government which donates only US$50,000 to most overseas disasters has given about US$384,615 (SGD500,000) to the Singapore Red Cross (on top of sending a few rescue personnel). Even countries which historically have strained relations with Japan, in particular China and South Korea, have put their old enmity aside to provide help to the stricken country. (Although, seriously China - just 15 rescue personnel?! Really?!)

Part of the reason for this level of outpouring of sympathies is in response to the almost beyond human comprehension scale of disaster that has hit Japan, shown day after day on televisions across the world in real time. In addition to the world's growing admiration on how the Japanese are handling the crisis with such grace and fortitude, I strongly believe over the many, many years after World War II, Japan has leveraged on its status as a world economic superpower and helped so many countries during their own crisis without a moment's hesitation, and earning a large pool of goodwill as a result. Finally, the world is now returning Japan's generosity. (Learn from her, China - instead of pissing people off by asking New Zealand to compensate the Chinese victims of the Christchurch earthquake, which is surprise (!) not New Zealand's fault.)

Yes, Japan may be one of the richest countries in the world, and remains for now the world's third largest economy, but the triple whammy of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant troubles are really more than what even the most disaster-prepared government is able to handle all at once. It disturbs me that even during such distressing times that there are crazy and idiotic people (thankfully a minority) who declared that Japan had it coming, it was their "karma", and other such rubbish. Honestly no country (or man) is an island - the world is too interconnected for one to laugh at another's misfortune and not expect any fallout to come your way (trust me, it will, sooner or later.) A simple case in point: all major stock markets have fallen alongside Tokyo's index crash over the past few days. If one is not interested in helping, at least do not rub salt in others' wounds by making snide comments.  

On the individual side, I continue to enjoy the best side of the Japanese people. On top of all the stress and probably distress they are facing, they have extended that legendary graciousness to stranded travellers like the Samurai and I. All the hotels and agencies are refunding us without imposing any cancellation charges (and without us asking). We are even getting back all the money for the purchase of the Japan Rail passes although it had been stated in black and white that a 10% administrative charge will be levied for unused passes. Multiply this many, many times over with all the tens of thousands of cancellations that they are getting, and the impact on their businesses, yet they do it without complaint and with their usual politeness.

Even if I was not a fan of Japan's to begin with, she now has supporters in the Samurai and I for life. The moment it is reasonably safe, back to Japan I will go to inject my hard earned money into their economy.
We love you, Japan. Ganbatte kudasai!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Aftermath: The Amazing Japanese Spirit

To be honest, even 2 days after the double disaster that hit Japan which scuppered our travel plans, I am still in shock over our narrow escape, and the fact that without God's impeccable timing, we would have been caught in the middle of one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. In Singapore, the "worst" natural disaster we have ever had was a flooding of our main shopping street, at Orchard Road, which was deemed disastrous to a nation of shoppers and expensive car owners. Most of us have never experienced an earthquake in our lives, although some residents living on our island's reclaimed portion could occasionally feel tremors from neighboring Indonesia, such as during the great and devastating Aceh quake of 2004. Protected and sheltered as we are, it would be beyond our wildest imagination to cope with what has been unfolding before our very eyes on television: the horrifying quakes and the resulting fearsome tsunamis in Japan.

Crazy as it sounds, I feel guilty at having escape it all, and I have been spending much of the last 48 hours practically pasting my face next to the television screen, absorbing scene after scene of utter devastation to all those places we had originally planned to visit like Sendai, Matsushima, and Ibaraki. The Samurai tells me to stop, that it is adding on to my depression, that I am moping, but it has gone beyond just an upset holiday. I have been to the country THREE times which is more than any other country except for Malaysia and Thailand, and it boggles my mind to see complete towns pulverised. I feel that by standing by, I am somehow providing the Japanese people the mental support that they need, and I would wait out with them for some good news to come out of the country, especially in view of the ongoing nuclear crisis. Silly, I know, but this is how I cope.

However, in the face of all that horror, we are witnessing amazing scenes of Japanese solidarity, their civility and their unbeaten spirit as a people. Where chaos and a breakdown of law and order would occur in other parts of the world, we have seen how calm and stoic the Japanese are - there are ZERO reports of looting, people are queuing politely even for the most basic of necessities like food and petrol, willing to stand orderly in line for hours in the bitter winter cold. The survivors are helping their neighbours despite having lost everything. They will grin and bear whatever hardships that will come with the inevitable rebuilding, as pleaded by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. They had come through 2 atomic bombs during World War II to become one of the world's largest economies; they came through during the horrible 1995 Kobe earthquake (which I visited just over a year ago, almost completely rebuilt), and with that same fortitude they would once again come through this new unprecedented crisis.

"How did they do it?" I asked the Samurai. "Why can't people elsewhere in the world do the same thing?" "They have a highly developed civic society," explained the Samurai. But US and Europe are also supposed to rank similar in terms of civic consciousness and yet I can bet my bottom dollar that there will be cases of looters (just see the situation in the recent Christchurch earthquake). Samurai further explained that the Japanese prized the social unit much more significantly than the individual, and community spirit is incredibly strong. It is no longer a "survival of the fittest" but a "let's stand together so that we can overcome this crisis."

I don't think I can admire the Japanese people more than at this point. Of course they are not perfect, but there is so much we can learn from their spirit and resilience. Let's help Japan overcome this. If you want to help in your own small way, check out this website on what you can do.

Friday, March 11, 2011

God Is Watching Over Me

In another 7 hours, the Samurai and I would have been on our way to the airport. Another 6 and a half hours later, we would have landed at the Narita Airport, then taken the Narita Express to Tokyo Station, and from there, we would have taken the Hayate Shinkansen to Sendai. Estimated arrival time at Sendai would be 5.38pm.

If we have just left a day earlier, we would have been caught in the middle of Japan's biggest earthquake ever recorded in history, with a magnitude of 8.8 (upgraded to 9.0 on Sunday) on the seismic scale, followed by a devastating tsunami that hit Sendai City, flooding even the Sendai Airport, and severely damaging the northeastern coastlines. As it is, my flight has been cancelled due to the shutdown of Narita Airport, and I have also cancelled all my hotel bookings. As I am writing this, my eyes remain glued to the CNN channel looking in disbelief at the horrifying scenes of the massive devastation in my beloved adopted country. We might have been there; at the worst, we might have been one of the casualities; at the very least we would have been stranded somewhere and frightened out of our wits by the tens of strong aftershocks that kept rocking the country.

When I first heard the news, I was angry that my long planned for holiday was going down the drain. Later, as the magnitude of the disaster sank in, I realized that God is truly watching over us and we couldn't be more incredibly blessed. Already on Wednesday, Japan was hit by an offshore quake of 7.2 which shook buildings in Tokyo but caused no damage. I was uneasy, but I was aware that Japan was one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world. We even experienced a minor one during our day trip to Nikko, although the realization came to us only after the event. Despite my concerns, I knew that Japan was one of the most quake-prepared countries in the world, so we were going ahead with our holiday plans. Who would have predicted that an even bigger quake would occur just 2 days later?!

At this moment, I am looking sadly at the number of casulties rising every hour, and no one could give an accurate picture as yet on the extent of the damage wrought by this disaster. We were supposed to visit Matsushima Bay, which is one of Japan's 3 Most Beautiful Sights, but now its fate is uncertain after the fierce tsunamis battered the coastlines. I cannot imagine how long it would take for Sendai and the general Tohoku area to recover, but I pray it would be soon. All my thoughts and prayers are on the Japanese people.

As for the fate of our holiday, it appears that my rendezvous with my Zao snow monsters, my Sakura and plum blossoms would be postponed indefinitely. But at least, we are still alive to wait for the next opportunity, all thanks to God.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Prepping for Tohoku

Before I start I would just like to give a shout out to my TWO and ONLY followers! (Hey, I never expected to be "followed" in the first place.) Thank you for having the good taste to follow this blog. I am indeed pleasantly surprised that besides my friends (including the now self-proclaimed "The Evil One") and relatives, there are actually other people from different parts of the world interested in my silly (but occasionally useful) blog.  Egypt?? Denmark? India? Wherever you come from, you guys are cool! The Fat Geisha feels your love.
I cannot find an image of a Fat Geisha (what do you mean, no such thing?!), but this Geisha sends her gratitude.

For the sake of useless information to join all other useless info from the Web, according to stats generated by Blogspot, my consistently top post is shockingly NOT a travel post, nor food post, nor posts about my beloved Takuya Kimura, but a post on HACHIKO, Japan's most famous dog. (Read post here.) There are certainly a lot of dog lovers out there in the world! I'm a crazy dog lover myself, so while I also love men (I can feel the Samurai shooting daggers into my back), I can understand why a dog can trump in popularity over Kimura-san.

I finally gathered my courage to watch the Hollywood version recently and of course I cried enough tears to flood my country.

THREE MORE DAYS!!!! I am finally going to my amazing adopted country in THREE MORE DAYS!!! I am so excited I can barely sleep properly. In fact, I have already packed most of our things, and am just throwing additional stuff into the luggage as and when I remember. Despite my ADVANCED preparations, 90% I would probably forget something important, like a hair band, or my day cream, or some crap like that. Once, I even forgot my camera. It always happens. I just checked the weather on Google and it appears that Tohoku, where we will be stationed for two thirds of the trip would be snowing (Yay!). The Samurai and I haven't seen snow proper, only slush on the mountains of Tasmania many donkey years ago. While I can't wait to see snow, I am also a bit fearful about my tolerance level for sub-zero temperatures, which would be the case when we go to the ski resort at Zao Onsen in Yamagata. And since we are tropical dwellers, we also don't have a mountain of winter wear at home, which could be disastrous.

On the topic of winter wear, my girlfriends have been trying to advise me to buy down jackets. But is it just me, or down jackets do look terribly ugly and unglam?! Honestly, everytime I see it, it reminds me of  the Michelin Man. And I really hate the idea of looking like Michelin Man. Yes, I KNOW it is the best thing to keep me warm, the alternative being that I can stay fashionable in pretty clothes and then freeze to death. You know how women go to extremes for the sake of beauty. ;P

Spot the similarity?!?!

The last thing I am wondering is if I should bring my Nihongo no Jisho i.e. Japanese dictionary along on this trip. In my last couple of lessons, I have learnt REALLY useful phrases that can bring me places in Japan. As mentioned before, this will be the first time I am going to Japan, armed with some language knowledge other than "Arigato" and "Sumimasen". This would be a test of my new language prowess, although I have a BAD feeling that I will still not use much more than "Arigato" and "Sumimasen". Maybe "Ikura deska?" i.e. "How much?" will be the new catchphrase. However, my main fear is not asking questions, but NOT being able to understand their answers. As it is, every week I struggle through the listening comprehension component of our homework. Such a pain.

So my dear readers, this is the final post until I return! Hang on tight and I will bring back many juicy stories and new information from this trip. Check back here in another 2 weeks!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Story of Natto (Fermented SoyBeans)

The Origins of Natto

In the beginning was a God of Beans. He was shaped like a bean, and cultivated all kinds of beans on his vast land, and absolutely loved eating his harvests (which explained his bean-shape). He was always experimenting with bean cuisines, to make them more interesting, because really, no matter how much one loves beans, you can get sick of them after some time. So He came up with "tofu", "beancurd", "bean paste", and many many other dishes, most of which tasted delicious.Then one day, the God of Beans decided he wanted to be even more adventurous. He decided to use soybeans and ferment them with "Bacilius subtilis"  which is a form of BACTERIA (but good bacteria, He said) via a long chemical process. This "fatal" combination resulted in the most pungent of dishes, strongly flavoured and slimy, and many thousands of years later, Takuya Kimura became a die-hard fan and credited it as the secret of his immense good looks. Natto is now a popular breakfast dish in Japan.

The Famous/Infamous Natto

I am sure you can tell that the above Natto story was entirely fabricated. If you are interested in the real, but boring history of Natto, there is always Wikipedia. But what is NOT fabricated is the fact that our dear Kimura-san is a Natto freak. According to my evil girlfriend (yes, that same evil one who has been tempting me into all sorts of things), she was getting tuition for Japanese, and her wonderful Sensei, knowing her crazed obsession with Kimura-san, went through a Japanese article on "100 Interview Questions with Takuya Kimura" and found this little unknown fact about his Highness.

Now, it is not a secret that I also ADORE Kimura-san. But I absolutely HATE Natto. I remember vividly the ONE and ONLY time I tried this Japanese dish, and it was on our most recent trip to Tokyo. As a result of our jet lag from the flight from New York, we were up bright and early as usual - 6 plus, 7am?? and the only  restaurants opened at this hour in Shinjuku were the 24-hour MacDonalds, First Kitchen, and Yoshinoya. Since we had already eaten at First Kitchen, and I would NEVER eat MacDonalds in the Land of Great Japanese Food, we were left with Yoshinoya, which had several outlets in Singapore as well, for our breakfast location.

Let me start off by saying that the Yoshinoya in Japan looks nothing like the ones in Singapore, and the menus were also vastly different (they do have beef bowls though). Since there were only rice set meals on the menu,   we placed our orders by pointing at the pictures (I had yet to start on my Japanese lessons). Surprise! The waiter was a young Caucasian male (likely a foreign student in Japan) who tried to ask me in his broken English if I wanted to change this side dish (Natto) to something else, and he was pointing at a gooey yellow lump. "What is that?" I asked. He replied, "Beans." He was struggling to tell me more, and couldn't, but he had an odd expression on his face. I was thinking to myself, "I like beans, and I never tried Natto. What could go wrong?" Well, everything went wrong.

I took two beans into my mouth and almost spat them out immediately. How can I describe it? It was like the equivalent of my food nightmare, with its overpowering strong taste and smell, and it was DISGUSTING. Some have compared Natto to the most pungent of cheeses, where it is an absolutely acquired taste for you to stomach something like Blue Cheese (shudder). Samurai also tried to eat the Natto, and he is never fussy about foods, but he almost fell off his seat while tasting it. IT WAS THAT BAD.

In conclusion, no matter what Kimura-san says about his great love for Natto, and how they made him beautiful (or handsome), I am NOT going to eat Natto ever again. Unless of course, I get to eat Natto that is strategically placed on his naked body, then maybe, just maybe, I can overcome my aversion and have another go at it (and him).

As always, another delectable Kimura-san picture to end the post and whet the appetite.

Takuya: Quick! Get me some Natto! Me: Yes baby, coming right up!