Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can You Tell?

I got a new camera while in Japan (Narita airport on the way home to be exact). All photos in the previous post were taken with my new camera. Can you tell the difference? Is it for the better? The new camera is 9 mega pixel Sanyo a point and shoot camera/video camera, if you like the results and want to know the exact model just ask via comments. It was a complete impulse buy which actually surprised for several reasons. 1) I have a perfectly good camera that even takes good quality video clips. 2) I talked myself out of buying a super cute and waterproof camera just days prior based on reason #1. 3) The vacation was over, it's not like I could even justify this purchase with immediate use. 4) I pledged to myself that I would not buy anything unnecessary in 2009 and while this was focused on clothes and shoes, I didn't NEED a new camera. However, I am not having buyers remorse. It is super cute , easy to use and holds way more video than my Cannon. It also has a rechargeable battery and the shop assistant gave me a nice little converter to switch the plug from Euro to US (Japanese) when I travel. It has a flip around screen to improve those self (or duo) portraits, we all know I love to take. Best of all, it is no bigger than my current point and shoot and also stores to an SD-Card. I've never bought a camera with out either personal or Internet reviews and now that I have read some on this one, I'm not sure I would have purchased it as I've seen mixed reviews, but it received a very good in a meta analysis so that may have convinced me. I haven't had enough time to really give it a proper approval but thus far, I like it. The controls are super simple, the only downfall is it is a bit slow on taking pictures but I am confident that with a bit more use, I will figure out how to adjust this in settings. My one true negative on this camera is that the lens does not close so you need to me careful to avoid smudge marks and scratches. Don't worry, I resisted the urge to get the pink one and went with a red version with a matte finish.

Monday, July 27, 2009

22km to Heidelberg

I am taking a break from the Japan posts but not a break from the photos, I will give you a peak into one of the nicest summer days this year. On a whim, a friend and I decided to take a bike ride to Heidelberg on Sunday and the weather happened to be on our side. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds guided our way along the river, through; fields (including one especially nice sunflower field), parks (where sunbathing was the topic of the day) and villages until we arrived in the old part of the University city, Heidelberg. It took us about an hour and a half and would have only been a 15 minute journey by train but it was Sunday and we had time.
After a cool sweet lunch at my new favorite place in HD, we walked about the city for a bit, and then stopped to chat over a Radler (half beer, half sprite and all refreshment). Eventually we hopped on a train back to Mannheim, two happy girls with bicycles and some odd new tan lines. Welcome summer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mt. Fuji Part I

Mt Fuji was one of my most anticipated destinations of the trip. I researched the climb on the Internet and we made some decisions about how and when we would attack Japan's highest peak. We booked ourselves a backpacker's hostel a short distance from the train station in the lakes region. From the train station, we knew we would need to take a bus to the fifth station of the mountain and hike from there. We were prepared with a headlamp, gloves and waterproof jackets for hiking through the night. The plan was to arrive, check-in, sleep a bit then wake up for the adventure and return to the hotel the next day for another nap and relaxed day by the lake. We arrived a bit later than anticipated because of rain and train transfers (only one train runs to the station we needed). Upon arrival, we were tired and could not see the mountain but were not yet discouraged. While Patrick took care of checking in, i took advantage of the Internet access computers in the lobby. Sitting next to me were two guys so I took the opportunity to ask about the mountain. One had been up the night before and everything he had to say was negative - cold, wind, rain, fog, no sunrise (I think everyone makes the climb for the sunrise). He returned wet, miserable and tired. He also pointed out that it is just too early in the climbing season for these overnight hikes. My research told me the season runs from July 1 to the end of August and I was excited to be one of the first hikers of the season on July 2/3 climb.
We went to our room, took a quick photo break to appreciate its Japanese style and discussed our options. Neither of us were motivated to tackle the mountain tonight, especially after the description from the guy in the lobby so we decided to take the rest of the evening to explore the area a bit, have dinner and make a decision for tomorrow.
Hiking seemed like it was not going to happen so we began to consider other options such as a lake cruise (the instant favorite), paddle boats shaped like whales (Patrick's favorite), a rope line up a different mountain (kind of stupid) or possibly taking the bus to the mountain in the morning and exploring the 5th station without hiking further (I at least wanted to be on the mountain since we were so close). We didn't make a decision but it was time for dinner so we went exploring.
First we found the lake. There were a few locals fishing and a few touristy looking boats docked for the evening. It was mostly quite but very pretty in our small alcove.
We knew there had to be more and our tummies were getting anxious so we left the lake and headed for town. I can't really call this place a city because it was so small. I was craving sushi but that was not on the menu this evening. Our restaurant choices were limited to Chinese, a cafeteria style Japanese place, Moss Burger (Japanese burgers and coffee), 7-11 or a small Indian restaurant. Based on delicious experiences in Tokyo, we chose Indian and were not disappointed.

After filling our tummies we headed back towards the lake, partly because it was on the way and partly because I wanted to see what was on the other side of the bridge (crossing the bridge to the next town was also an option for the next day).

While on the bridge I tried to find the mountain. If were were going to see it from anywhere, this was our chance. However, neither of us could find more than the base of any mountain so it was hard to distinguish what may be Mt. Fuji. Patrick asked the first Japanese man to pass and he pointed us in the right direction. Mt. Fuji is that way. Don't you see it? he laughed at us and continued on his way. We laughed too, this was hopeless.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Big in Japan

Patrick is really not that tall but he stood out in Japan.
On our first day in Japan our friends* took us to lunch and then we visited a shopping plaza. Shopping plaza sounds a bit fancy but it was just like any collection of stores sharing a semi-communal parking lot you would find in the US (think RT. 1 in MA) or Germany (think Real and Baumarkt type, not downtown), nothing special there. we made three stops. First to Uni Qlo which is the Japanese equivalent of H&M and was semi familiar to me from my time in London. Next we went to a 100 Yen shop which I had heard so much about. 100 Yen is traditionally about 1 USD so I didn't expect it to be so different from a Dollar store but it was a bit more chaotic and there were many things over a dollar. I could best describe it as an over packed Family Dollar with some additional neon colors.
A view inside the shop.
While wandering around and trying to control our overstimulated senses I heard giggles. Clearly Patrick and I are foreign and, unlike in Germany, I didn't need to open my mouth to confirm my foreign status. Two young girls were following us and when they realized we were onto them, then they linked arms, marched up to us and said "Hello, how are you?" in the sweetest most polite English. We responded and then it was my turn to giggle - we had groupies. They followed us for the remainder of our stay and randomly asked other questions such as "what is your name?" and "Where are you from?" All of the talking was done by one well spoken little girl named Megan (maybe she spent some time in the US as Megan is not common in Japan and neither is speaking English) who could not have been more than 8 years old. Each time she would come up to us, she would accumulate more giggling children. Before we left, I asked Megan and her first friend whose name I have since forgotten if I could take their picture. hey were happy to oblige and even grabbed another friend for the shot.
Megan is on the left in the stripes and her original partner (sister) is in the cameo on the right.
In case you were wondering - and we defiantly were - there is no reason behind the peace sign in photos. ALL Japanese do it and when we asked no one could explain the motivation, our friends did not even think of it as a sign of peace. We observed photo subjects of all ages doing this and even adopted it in several shots - when in Rome...
The entourage became a bit overwhelming so we left. Our next stop was a brief trip to the Supermarket next door in search of a "Fanta furufuru shaker," an only in Japan half soda half gelatin beverage Patrick saw on YouTube and needed to try. Apparently it is a relatively new product in Japan and was not available at that supermarket so we headed back to base and had fresh edemame followed by coffee and cake with the family before going to dinner (did I mention we just ate lunch).
*Patrick's family has been friends with a Japanese family since he was in kindergarten so when I mention our Japanese friends, it is this family, I only met them on our visit but they were so nice and friendly I consider them my friends now too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Like Charades and Fish

Sometimes speaking to our Japanese friends was like playing charades. My favorite was when they sent us SMSs (TXTs for the Americans) with clip art and moving icons. Once Youmi sent photo message which also included two wine glasses "prosting" and a waving Hello Kitty. I couldn't handle the cuteness! Anyway, I decided it would be fun to start my Japan recaps with a bit of a photo post. Let's hope my meager blogger formatting skills can get me through this. On our third day in Tokyo, we woke up at the crack of dawn (3:30am to be exact) to visit the Tsukiji (say: Skijee) fish market. We heard from several people and tour books that this was an unique attraction not to be missed and you better show up early to witness thee Tuna auction. Our local friend had never been but as wiling t pick us up so early. After we found a parking spot and avoided several forklift drivers while running across the lot in the rain, we saw this and knew we were in the right place. It is true, there is a lot of packaging waste in Japan and the fish market is no exception. We quickly ducked inside out of the rain and made our way to the auctuction floor. video It was a lot like the Chicago mercintile exchange, but a bit more literal. Once the fish were accounted for, they were quickly slid across the floor and loaded onto forklifts for delivery into the ajoining market. After they reached their new owners, the frozen Tunafish were cut up with electric saws and large knives. Tuna were the only fish avaliable at the auction but the expansive market sold every type of seafood I could imagine and then some, including this bright guy and giant mussels. Once we had an eyeful of tuna and sea creatures, we were off in search of breakfast. Our Japanese friend searched out what I equate to a Japanese diner. The other guests were fresh off their night shifts when we arrived around 7am. Unfortunately, I can't eat so early but Patrick enjoyed a delicious looking spread of fresh fish, rice an miso soup.The soup looked so good, I had one and best of all it was served by this woman: so it must be authentic.

Friday, July 17, 2009

AK-47 and a truck

Does God want us to have guns? WWJD? Would he carry a gun "they didn't have guns back then but I believe he would carry a sword if he needed it but he wouldn't need it, he's so powerful." Seriously, watch the clip yourself, I think this anchor woman did a good job of keeping her cool. So glad I'm from New England.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

USA

I am proud to be an American (most of the time) and I really do love my country. July 4th is one of my favorite days of the year. I begin with this because what I am about to say is pretty critical of the US. Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to experience the world outside of the US for an extended period of time and it has really opened up my eyes when it comes to US stereotypes and anti-American sentiment. At the moment, I'm watching the live coverage of Hilary Clinton's speech.
CNN is getting all in a twitter about Hil's mention of Twitter, pun intended, but I don't really think that was a main point. Mrs. Clinton stated several times that there are current global challenges that no country can take on alone, which sounded very cooperative. However, she followed with a statement about how no challenges can be solved without the US. This is where I can understand anti-US feelings. It just comes off as cocky at a time when the US literally can't afford to be perceived as such. Hello, we are in debt and in the middle of a world economic crisis which started in the US. Clinton, in no uncertain terms, referred to the US military as the strongest in the world. She also mentioned the US commitment to reduce nukes and ensure they are not used. I am all too aware, after visiting Hiroshima, that several countries possess enough nukes to annihilate the population of the world. I guess it does not matter how strong your army is if you piss off the wrong person.
I know this sounds like a rant, but I am truly worried for my country. We have an elitist attitude based on an elitist past. As Hil mentioned, we can not live in the past and we must deal with challenges in the present. She also referred to a diminished image of the US as of recent. A professor speaking to Doctoral students about publishing our work recently said, don't tell us how important your results are, show it. This is immediately what I thought as I listened to Hil. I think we need to seriously improve our world image and maybe the road to change needs to begin with a bit of realism. I believe the US has the ability to regain that top position in the world and Obama is certainly positioning himself to be an international leader but the steps taken along the way will soon show how well US actions are received in the world and I am done listening to what the Secretary of State tells me the US is capable of and ready to see the results.
On a related note, legislation is in the works for mandatory health care in the US. This has the potential to be life changing for many people and I am waiting to see what comes out before the legislature goes on August break.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Japan

As you know, we were in Japan for the past 2 weeks. I don't even know where to begin. I want to share so many impressions and stories from Tokyo to Fuji to Kyoto and especially Hiroshima, I took so much away from this trip. It was anything but relaxing but I would consider it a perfect vacation (even though we never made it to the beach). There was meeting of new old friends, engulfing in a completely foreign culture and still some of familiar things from the US made unexpected appearances, it is a baseball country after all. I ate less sushi than expected and enjoyed more naan bread than anticipated. The days were hotter an wetter than I believed possible and Fuji was colder than I would have liked. Tokyo was not as crowed as I had imagined but much larger then I knew. Hiroshima was filled with history and hope but lacked beaches, Miojima made u for the coast but the jungle was off limits. Patrick fell in love with Kyoto but quickly came to the realization that we would never see all of its historic sights (with 1 World Heritage sites along, i never imagined we would gt close). We bought yukatas (think summer kimono) and Japanese tea cups. We frequented 7-11 for the ATM and Vitamin Water and we walked a lot. The weather prevented us from summiting Mt. Fuji but it was for the best, we had a good climb and now understand the Japanese saying which implies you are a fool to climb twice. I have literally thousands of photos on 3 SD cards and a couple of videos which I have just begun uploading. I want to share so many but it will take me some time to get over this jet lag and sort through them. I can imagine I will get about one Japan story in blog form per week. Here are a few teasers:

Ranting

I just got off the phone with the IRS, why I was on the phone was irrelevant but the conversation I had made me say WTF! I spoke with a very nice woman and of course needed to provide my current address for confirmation. When she confirmed my address she commented on what a great phone connection we had -hello it is not 1980 I could call you over the internet and have a good connection. She answered my question and after providing the mailing address I needed asked if I like living abroad. I was a bit taken aback because call center operators don't usually make small talk. I paused briefly and then answered with a simple yes in order to avoid divulging details of my life to a woman who has my personal file open on her computer complete with social security number and all I know about her is her last name. Without hesitation, she countered my yes by saying she would never live outside of her United States. Of course, I love my country (USA) but I firmly believe no one from any country should have an attitude of superiority and ignorance toward the rest of the world. I simply stated "there's so much more out there" I intended to leave it here and end the call. I guess I underestimated the American ability to have a conversation with a stranger. She began gushing about how the US is the best because it is a new country. I don't think 200+ years is all that new anymore but that was not up for discussion. I told her we need to be more open to other cultures and be aware of what we can learn from other countries. She said something about the infrastructure and I explained to her how, in Germany, short work weeks have been instated in many companies in order to minimize layoffs and gave her an example of the benefits for the person, firm and government. At that point, she told me how the economic downturn needed to happen because people were spending above their means. I agreed with her (I do think consumer spending was unsustainable but I also feel for the people who are now unemployed and would not go as far as to say I was glad this recession happened). That was a long story to illustrate the real views of SOME Americans. I don't get why people think they are better than everyone else simply because of their country of origin and also question why others hate them based on their nationality. This was a very fitting time for me to have this conversation since I spoke with a student this morning who is about to study in the US. To be fair he has already done a year of high school and a semester of his MBA but he is going back to finish. Moral of the story is that we both agreed Europeans see the advantages of studying and working outside of their home country but Americans are much more hesitant to leave. Maybe we could blame the Atlantic ocean but I am kind if in love with the Atlantic so it can do no wrong in my mind. ;) Seriously, I really and truly believe it is so important for Americans to prove the stereotypes wrong and open our minds to other cultures. The melting pot may have boiled over but the world is only getting smaller and America is no longer the super power it once was from an economic, cultural or military standpoint. We need to face facts and make improvements if we ever hope to regain status in the world otherwise we will be consumed by China, and the EU. Look at the dollar, at one point ALL countries were on fixed exchange rates against the US dollar which was backed by gold now it is worth less than the EURO, GBP (sometimes Swiss Franc) and reached an all time low against the Yen. The world is changing American needs to adapt and we as Americans need to become aware of our surroundings and teach our children a second language from grade school! That's my rant, feel free to share yours in the comments, promise I'll read.