Friday, October 30, 2009

Tsukiji fish market

Before heading home from Japan, I finally made it to the Tsukiji fish market - one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world.

It was an amazing experience. Every kind of sea food as far as the eye can see. There was also an enormous tuna auction, where after each fish was sold, a guy with long metal hooks would get a good grip on the fish and then hoist it up onto a tram. (I arrived basically too late to see the auction, but attached myself to a group of retired Israeli tourists who pushed their way in.)

There were also lots of other kinds of fruits and veggies sold, including Japanese eggplant!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On Language

This trip to Japan was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time in a country where I did not speak even a bit of the local langauge (unlike previous trips to the UK, Australia New Zealand, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, or Israel). Even in Egypt I could pick up little bits of Arabic with my knowledge of Hebrew.

That said, I was sometimes reminded of what my elementary school principal once said about himself, which is that "I have a good ear for languages." On this trip I finally realized what he meant: he was good at figuring out context.

(I had a nearly deaf friend in college who also was just so smart that she could almost always figure out exactly what was going on in a conversation because she could infer from context.)

One example was in the airport, where my Air Canada boarding pass didn't list my UsAirways frequent flyer number. I went to the counter and asked, and the person turned to his colleague and said a few sentences in Japanese. Hearing the words "USAirways" and "Star Alliance" I immediately knew what he was asking, and so said "Hi" (Yes), starling the individual who thought I did not speak Japanese. Well, to a good extent he was right.

(Title borrowed from William Safire, zicrono livroho)


For my birthday, my colleagues and I went to a Japanese baseball game. I was struck by a few things, including:

1) The size of the stadium. We went to one of the two major stadiums in Tokyo, and forget the lack of fancy new frills (a la Bob Herbert's recent column), the stadium was tiny. It felt more like the Durhman Bulls or Redding Phillies than like like even an old school American major league stadium (like the Vet, Yankees Stadium or Three Rivers).

2) Everyone had little umbrellas (since the team was the Tokyo Swallows), and so would stand and wave them on cue whenever anything exciting happened

3) The ice cream cone I got was so frozen solid it was almost completely inedible

4) The following sign, which is something like "beware of foul balls." Apparently, the Japanese are so engrossed in either the game or their electronic devices that they need to be constantly reminded of this.

5) The fact that it otherwise looked exactly like an American baseball game

Friday, October 16, 2009


Yes, in Japan, you can buy octopus in the convenience store. Yuck.

Two Jewish notes

Two quick stories about Jewish communities out here that I don't think I've mentioned yet:

1) In China (PRC), it is actually illegal for the Chabad in Shanghai to have any interaction with Chinese citizens, because of the government ban on proselytization. This law does not apply to foreigners (whose religious needs organizations are allowed to serve), so anyone holding a passport of another country (or permanent residence) is okay. But, unlike in Japan, where you can have a conversion class, such a formal outreach to anyone interested would not be a good idea in China.

2) I am generally amazed by hiluni (secular) Israelis, especially the way that Judaism for them is traditional Orthodox or nothing. A group of Israeli architects visited the new Jewish community building here in Tokyo. When entering the space designated for services (where they had to be reminded to put on head coverings out of respect), they repeatly asked where the women were supposed to sit. Their host continually replied that men and women sit together, and so there was no separate women's section.

Later, when seeing the gorgeous tiled bathrooms, they remarked that the building must have been built on a budget, because the sinks don't have automatic hand sensors. Their host explained that, no, there were no budgetary concerns here, but, rather, the automatic hand sensors would cause a problem on Shabbat. This perplexed the Israelis, who seem to not be able to wrap their heads around a shul that sat men and women together, yet cared about automatic hand sensors on Shabbat.

Apprently, in their world, once you don't discriminate based on gender for ritual participation, you might as well throw out all of the laws of Shabbat and kashrut!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Umbrellas in Japan

I've noticed that the Japanese tend to have very large umbrellas. So large that people have almost run into me on the street because the have their umbrellas angled forward and so can't see where they're going. (There's also a trend toward clear, transparent umbrellas, which would mitigate this problem.)

But what do you do with your umbrella when you go inside? Well, in some office buildings, you can lock it up (for free):

Alternatively, you can use one of these fantastic contraptions. Basically, you put your umbrella in from the top, and then jerk it back toward you.

The result is an umbrella that is tightly wrapped in a narrow plastic bag. This prevents your wet umbrella from knocking up against anything and getting it wet, and keeps the dripping water inside the bag and not on the floor.

Go Phillies!

Excellent article in the New York Times about the Phillies, going into the NLCS.

Here's the best quote:
The fact remains that they still have Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, the switch-hitting speedsters who ignite their offense at the top of the lineup. They still have Chase Utley and [Ryan] Howard, the left-handed sluggers. They still have [Jayson] Werth, who has become increasingly dangerous, and now they also have Raul Ibanez, who was one of four Phillies to hit at least 30 home runs. Over all, the Phillies led the N.L. in runs, in homers, in slugging percentage, and perhaps in intimidation, too.
Game 1 begins 8:07 PM EDT on Thursday. Let's go Phils!

Monday, October 12, 2009

All quiet in the Land of the Rising Sun

As I've mentioned in previous posts, this time of year, Japan is 13 hours ahead of the New York.

So, around 2 or 3 PM JST, everything starts to quiet down. I stop receiving personal email. My Google reader feed dries up. My friends on GChat start to become idle. Even Facebook slows to a crawl.

By now (nearly 7 PM), the loneliness has truly set in. For extroverts like me, electronic communication is an incredible thing. Suddenly, I can easily stay in regular contact with dozens of people all around the world, sporadically catch up with hundreds more, and keep tabs on thousands.

But, this only works when waking hours overlap. Since the vast majority of my friends are on the East Coast, my extended social circle is a function of what it is there, not here.

Luckily, as happens every day, the 6 AM early risers in the US will be up shortly to keep me company. And so, another slow afternoon comes to a close.

Krugman: Fed should not raise rates

Excellent post over at Paul Krugman's blog about why the Fed shouldn't raise rates anytime soon, despite concerns about inflation
Let me start with a rounded version of the Rudebusch version of the Taylor rule:

Fed funds target = 2 + 1.5 x inflation - 2 x excess unemployment

where inflation is...currently 1.6...and excess unemployment is the different between the...NAIRU (currently 4.8) and the actual unemployment rate (currently 9.8).

Right now, this rule says that the Fed funds rate should be -5.6%. So we’re hard up against the zero bound.

Suppose that core inflation stays at 1.6%....Then we can back out the unemployment rate at which the target would cross zero, suggesting that tightening should begin: it’s an excess unemployment rate of 2.2, implying an actual rate of 7 percent....

What would it take to get to that range of unemployment? Okun’s Law suggests that it takes 2 points of GDP growth in excess of potential to reduce unemployment by 1 point. Potential growth is probably around 2.5. So say we have 5 percent growth for the next 2 years — which would be hailed as a stunning boom. Even so, unemployment should fall only 2.5 points, to 7.3. In other words, even with a really strong recovery (which almost nobody expects), the Fed should keep rates on hold for at least two years.

Bear in mind that I’m using entirely standard, conventional analysis here. It’s the people saying that the Fed should start tightening in the near future who are inventing some kind of new, unspecified framework to justify their views.
It's amazing how useful simple linear macro approximations can be.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Best Pizza in Tokyo

After eight weeks of searching, I have finally found the best pizza in Tokyo: Partenope.

Recommended to me by both the president and the Sicily-born rabbi of the Jewish Community of Tokyo (which is nearby), Partenope serves a spectacular Margarita pizza - mozzarella cheese with a bit of tang, tomato sauce with the right amount of sweetness, a crust that is crisp but not hard and caramelized but not burnt.

In my last week here in Tokyo, I must go back at least once. Maybe twice.

Semibiyake (charcoal grill)

Last week, my colleagues and I had a team at a semibiyake (charcoal grill) restaurant. Basically, the tables had two square holes in them (maybe 1' by 1' by 2'), into which the waiter put a smoldering charcoal grill. We were then able to order a range of items, and baste and grill them our self. The fish-eating vegetarian senior manager and I had one grill, which we used for mushrooms, eggplant, and sardines (see below):

as well as deep fried garlic in sesame oil (which was amazing, though I couldn't wait and so ate many of the cloves before they were fulled caramelized).

On the other grill, my colleagues grilled many kinds of meat, as well as LIVE SEAFOOD. By this, I mean prawn-like creatures and others that were still blowing bubbles from their mouths, and whose tentacles were moving. Disgusting.

(Though, I'm not sure totally un-Jewish. Clearly Judaism forbids eating flesh torn from live mammals and birds. But what about fish? Could I have taken a live sardine, thrown it on the grill, and then eaten it?)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The New Yorker on Holbrooke and Afghanistan

I highly recommend reading the New Yorker's recent profile of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his work in Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


As my time here draws to a close, I wanted to share some of the ridiculous signs that I've seen out here.

Now, I am not out to make fun of anyone's English (whatever it is, it's better than my Japanese), so I have excluded signs that are simply misspelled or grammatically incorrect. Rather, these are signs that simply make me wonder what was going through the head of the person who designed it.

Click on it to zoom in - the sign says "Please refrain from gargling here"

The sign says "Attention! Under construction to [sic] keep off" Except I don't see any construction anywhere...

Clearly a major problem with scribbling. If you were a scribbler, would you listen to a sign that said not to?

"One step forward, please!"

And finally, one form China. This was in PuDong, overlooking the Bund.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Trains in Japan

Japan has an incredible train system, from the fastest Shinkansen, all the way down to the regular subway.

Indeed, Japan has so many train lines that is often very difficult to figure out which one to take:

Also, the board on a platform tells you where to line up for a specific line. (In the picture below, the circle in the second row, 5 characters from the left, shows that you should line up at the "circles" for that train.)

Which correspond to the follow circles on the ground:

And where everyone lines up in a nice, ordered fashion! This is a far cry from the blob on an Amtrak platform, where no one has any clue where the train's doors will be when it stops.

Finally, interiors of subways are much more advanced than in the US, with cushioned seats, and handles from the ceiling (thing the things next the monkey bars when you were in elementary school).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Profile of Anna Deavere Smith

The New York Times has a profile of one of my favorite artists - Anna Deavere Smith - whose breadth is so broad that she can both play the NSA advisor on the West Wing, and also write and produce and star in a one-woman show about the Crown Heights Riots (Fires in the Mirror).

TSA on Sukkot

The Transportation Security Administration just put out the following alert:

The travel period for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins approximately on Wednesday, September 30, 2009, and ends approximately on Tuesday, October 13, 2009.

Observant Jewish travelers may carry four plants – a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a citron – in airports and through security checkpoints. These plants are religious articles and may be carried either separately or as a bundle. Jewish travelers may be observed in prayer, shaking the bundle of plants in six directions.

The workforce should note that TSA’s screening procedures do not prohibit the carrying of such agricultural items through the airport or security checkpoints, or on airplanes. These plants are not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List. And, as always, TSA is committed to treating all passengers, including passengers who may be observing Sukkot, with respect and dignity during the screening process.



The Imperial Palace in Tokyo

Moadim L'Simcha / Happy Sukkot.

Today, I walked over the Imperial Palace, and through the East Gardens. Gorgeous - I highly recommend anyone in Tokyo go. (Running around it also seems to be very popular.)

I did not take any pictures since it was Yom Tov, and so here are some pictures from others of what I saw:



Shabbat in Shanghai

Just wanted to post some pictures of the Chabad in Shanghai where I davened Shaharit one weekday morning and spent Shabbat while I was there.

Lovely community. The building is much smaller than the new building in Tokyo that I posted about a while back (where I've spent an enormous amount of time this past few weeks with the chagim). Also, the community is very different, with far more students studying abroad than in Japan (where I've met almost none).

If you go, stay at the Sheraton. It's a relatively easy 20-25 minute walk, though the entrance is a bit hard to find (it's across the street on the left at the main intersection, and then toward the back of a complex).

Shanghai Museum

If you're in Shanghai, you must check out the Shanghai Museum, which is right in People's Square. It closes at 5, but they stop letting anyone in at 4. (I almost didn't get in.)

Here are some pictures of the great stuff there:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

From my hotel room, on the 57th floor of the Meridian hotel in Shanghai, I had great view. (Starwood Platinum status is worth something.) This is people's square, with the Shanghai Museum in the middle.

More of Shanghai.

This is looking toward the river, and then Pudong. (The Bund would be off of the right side of this picture.)

Finally, here's a video that pans around Shanghai, just to give you a sense of how massive it is. I've never seen this many skyscrapers in one place.

Vegetarian Lunch in Shaghai

Last week, I met up with a friend from college, who took me to an amazing vegetarian restaurant in the French Concession area of Shanghai.

The restaurant, Wu Guan Tang, at 349 Xinhua Rd, near Dingxi Rd (unlike Japan, China has normal street names and sequentially numbered buildings) advertised itself as "No MSG, Not Fried, No Carbonation, No Artifical Meat." I knew I was in for a treat. Everything was a bit sweeter than Chinese food I've had before, which apparently makes it more Shanghainese.

This one is curried rice with avocado.

Two different kinds of mushrooms.

This one was very spicy.

Finally, this was mock crab, which was sweet potato and carrot, stuffed into a hollowed out red pepper.

We also got two other dishes, and tea. The whole cost of the lunch, which could have easily fed 3 people? 180 yuan, which is around $14 a person. Amazing.