Sunday, December 20, 2009

I'm baaaaaack!

I know it has been a long time since I've actually written anything substantive here, but I am happy to report that I should be back in action pretty soon. The past few months have been busy, mostly with a super-intense job hunt, but that's over now (with really awesome, exciting results!) So the bjourn shall be revived starting with the completion of the Japan travelogue, which is seriously overdue.

In the meantime, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all! We hope you are keeping safe and warm, and having lovely fun times with family and friends.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy 19th Monthaversary!

Once again, a little late, but watching you watch "Heatstroke" (Winnie from The Wonder Years and D.B. Sweeney from the Cutting Edge try to save mankind) makes it all worthwhile...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy 18th Monthaversary!

Oh dear, I appear to have missed our 17th 17th... Clearly, have been far too busy!

Happy 1.5 years of married bliss...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Happy Sweet 16!!

You won fair and square today!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Photos from Japan

I finally uploaded the last of our pictures from Japan to our Picasa site. If any of you are still interested, feel free to check it out.

If and when she has some more free time, Michelle will finish her day-by-day recap of our trip. (It's hard to believe it's already been over 3 months since we got back.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book Report: "Ambition and Delight"

Henry Bourne was one of my most valued mentors in graduate school. I could always count on him to provide some much-needed perspective, and his advice was always clear and balanced, so I was extremely excited to read his memoirs, "Ambition and Delight". My expectations were pretty high, but I wasn't at all disappointed. I think both scientists and non-scientists would enjoy the book.

For scientists, it's inspiring to read about the rapid progress early in Henry's career when he and others elucidated how information contained in chemical cues traverses the membrane and induces cellular responses. At the same time, he explains how specific relationships and institutional elements helped him along the way (while others maybe didn't help so much) and provides plenty of insight and advice for success in academia. For non-scientists, he nicely explains the process of science, with its inherent frustrating and exciting elements.

The voice is undeniably Henry. There are certainly numerous humorous passages, and Henry is never afraid to point out other people's shortcomings, in addition to his own. In fact, my only complaint is that he is far too modest. He describes himself as an "ordinary" scientist, a label I find absurdly inaccurate. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend "Ambition and Delight" for almost all the readers of this blog (all four of you).

You can order your own copy here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Me and you +14

Happy 14th Monthaversary!

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 11 in Kobe

On the train again...Just can't wait to get on the train again...

On May 12, we set out from Hiroshima, heading East to Kobe. Coming into the Shin-Kobe shinkansen station, we then had to subway to the main Kobe Sannomiya station. The hotel (another of the Toyoko-Inn business hotel chain, where we also stayed in Kyoto) was very close to Sannomiya, and in quite a bustling area.

I had picked two specific things to do while we were in Kobe: to see Himeji-Jo, one of the twelve surviving feudal-era castles in the country; and to see the Akaishi-Kaikijo Ohashi, the "Pearl" suspension bridge. We were staying in Kobe for 2 nights, so I planned to spend the better part of one day at Himeji-Jo and figured we would do the bridge at leisure on another day, then spend the rest of our time exploring the city. When we asked the tourist info center about the bridge, they were like, oh, you came all the way for the bridge? To see it? As if we were kind of crazy. When we later recounted our trip to Mina, she said the same thing! It's the longest suspension bridge in the world! (If you haven't figured it out from these posts, I am a big fan of bridges. I've loved walking on the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Millenium Bridge in London, and even driving beside that pretty one alongside the 134/2 freeway exchange just outside of Pasadena!)

So after leaving our bags at the hotel, we decided to head out to Himeji-jo. Depending on the type of train you choose, it is 25-40 minutes away from Kobe. We happened to get on a train that stopped at the bridge on its way to Himeji, so we made a quick decision to stop off and just go see it before continuing to the castle. Unfortunately the bridge info center was closed, so we just spent some time walking around the base of it. It is really breathtaking, especially on that day when it was quite foggy. It reminded me of the Golden Gate bridge, but much bigger and gleaming white. It spans the inland sea to reach Awaji-shima, the island that was at the epicenter of the 1995 earthquake that pretty much leveled Kobe. Luckily, the bridge survived unscathed, other than growing 1 meter in length! Technology is amazing.

So yes, we spent maybe half an hour at the bridge - it certainly didn't need a day :) Back on the train, we headed on to Himeji-Jo, and we started thinking about what we would do with our sudden windfall of time tomorrow, since we had freed up a whole day. The idea of taking a day trip to Osaka took hold, and I got excited because we had previously decided to skip it, thinking we wouldn't have enough time.

Anyway, arriving at Himeji station, we nibbled on some takoyaki and sushi on the way to the castle. The castle was breathtaking before we even got that close to it, as it rises quite tall from a hill. It is white and grey, imposing and elegant at the same time. It's a bit of a climb to the ticket gate, which I thought just heightened the anticipation. Our Eyewitness guidebook devoted a whole 2-page spread to the castle and grounds, which combined with some pretty decent English signage made for a satisfying self-guided tour. There were interesting bits like little windows for spotting enemies or pouring hot oil out of (to fend off said enemies). The castle never actually saw real battle or bombs, so it was in pretty good shape. We were allowed to climb all the way to the top of the main tower (6 floors), and the staircases were so tall and shallow. I'm sure people weren't that tall back then, so running around it must have been quite a challenge. We were on our way out when the security guard directed us away from the usual exit and said "Special Event." Excitedly, we followed and wondered if we were going to get to see a secret room (which were heretofore off limits) or a samurai demonstration. But nope, we just got to go through the smaller tower next to the main tower.

Himeji-jo, or the "White Heron"

Out the window of the smaller tower during the "special event"

We'd become used to taking our shoes off and carrying them around in provided plastic bags, but at the castle, they hired an army of people to clean and fold the bags.

Close to the castle are a few museums that are also architectural sights, so we went to check them out. Of note was the Museum of Literature (not that close to the castle - quite a hike in the heat!), designed by Ando Takao. Lots of angles and glass, circles and walkways and a concrete waterfall.
The beautiful Museum of Literature

View of Himeji-jo from the Museum of Literature, and pretty wildflowers!

After that, we decided to hightail it back to Kobe to try to make it up the Ropeway (cable car), which closes at 5pm. It was about 3:30, so we really had to pound the pavement. I lamented that we didn't take advantage of the apparently free bicycles that you can borrow from the Himeji tourist info center, when Brian somewhat tersely reminded me that he had suggested it and I had said no. Oops!

Back at Sannomiya station, we made it to the ropeway station in plenty of time. We got in our little pod and had a nice long ride up to the top, which really nice views of Kobe, the bay, and Rokku island. At the top is a cute herb garden that you can explore as you descend to the halfway station, but we just hung out at the top enjoying the cool breeze for a while, then took the ropeway back down.

View from the ropeway capsule.

We headed back to the hotel to regroup and figure out where to have dinner. We had heard about Kushiya, a restaurant close to the hotel that is - get this - all-you-can-eat-do-it-yourself fried food. Oh my. We were only slightly intimidated, but figured it had to be done. When we arrived at the address listed in the book, we couldn't find any signage. We went into the building that it was supposed to be in and got out on a random floor, hoping for the best. It was not Kushiya, but some other restaurant. I asked the server/host where Kushiya was (in my best Japanese) and after a few confused minutes, he got into the elevator with us. He actually got out on the street and led us about half a block away. He pointed up at another building and we saw that he had brought us to Kushiya! It was so nice of him, especially since it was his competition, we were astonished.

Inside the restaurant, we were seated at a table with two little wells of hot oil in the table. Our server was really sweet, and tried hard to explain the process to us in limited English. She showed us where the fresh food was, all skewered up, and then showed us how we were supposed to batter it up and fry it. They had all sorts of meats (chicken, pork, shrimp, whole smelts, beef, etc.) and veggies (asparagus, mushrooms, eggplant, broccoli) and even sweets (balls of dough, and even tayaki red bean fish cakes!) There was a small salad bar, an udon noodle bar, and several sauces for dipping. Delicious! You have 90 minutes to eat your fill (we didn't take it all) and get out. Our server (who said her name was "Husky" or something like that) was really sweet and checked to make sure we were doing ok.

Skewers, glorious skewers of food ready for the fryer!

All of the steps are captured in this photo: battering, breading, frying, and resting...

Aftermath (you were supposed to put all of your used skewers in a cup)... no, we didn't count them up. I think that would have been embarassing.

After that we walked around a bit and checked out Kobe at night. Much of it was rebuilt after the earthquake, so a lot of the buildings are quite modern.

The bright lights at night in Kobe.

A cool manhole cover near our hotel.

Then it was back to the hotel to figure out what we were going to do the next day on our unplanned daytrip to Osaka!

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 10 on Miyajima (from Hiroshima)

On Day 11 (May 11th), we took an early train and ferry out to the island of Miyajima (another name for Itsukushima). The ferry takes a nice, circuitous route from the mainland to the island, so you have a lot of time to check out this sight:

The huge "floating O-torii"; its position in the sea marks the entire island as a Shinto holy place.

The O-torii dates from 1875, and is 16m tall. Not surprisingly, it is one of Japan's most famous sights. It is part of the Itsukushima shrine, which you come to soon after landing on the island. Because of its position right on the shore, the shrine itself is kind of built on 'stilts' so that it can stand the changes in tide. When we arrived in the morning, there was water throughout, but by the time we left in the mid-afternoon the water had receded and you could walk on the ground between walkways. you can actually walk out to the big torii at low tide, though we thought it was cooler when the tide was high and the bright orange paint was reflected in the water below. We considered coming back at night (but didn't end up doing so).

Itsukushima shrine, from the ferry

One of the walkways at Itsukushima shrine. I'm loving all the orange in this country!

Around the shrine, we were on the lookout for momji-manju, maple cakes that are basically the same as the tayaki fish cakes we had in Tokyo (pastry cake around red bean or other filling). The maple leaf shape is unique to the area, and we saw many stores with automated machines for making them that clanked and hissed and spit out perfectly formed little cakes.

Reminiscent of a krispy kreme, no?

After Itsukushima-jinja, we headed inland and upward to the main temple complex, Daisho-in. This temple was really interesting, the most accessible of all the ones that we visited over the whole trip, I think. First of all there was a really detailed English pamphlet (not the norm), but also pretty much all of the buildings were open and free, so you could enter and explore at your leisure. Miyajima is revered as a holy place, so holy that no one is allowed to be born there or to die there (I'm not sure how the logistics of that actually work). Some of the buildings housed what we thought of as 'shortcuts' to enlightenment - one contains representations of all 88 temples that make up an 88-temple, 1200km pilgrimage around Shikoku island - if you walk through this building, they say it is like you have done the whole thing (sweet!) Also, if you turn each of the metal cylinders that line the steps up to another building, it is like you have read the scrolls (Sutra buddhist text) contained inside each one - if only journal articles worked that way!

In one of the buildings, there was this amazing sand drawing (called a mandala) that took two Tibetan monks two weeks to create. They displayed photos showing the monks working on it - what intense concentration! They basically used scoopulas to pour the sand onto a platform in a really intricate design. Some of the lines of sand were a few millimeters wide - what happened when they made a mistake?

The mandala, made entirely of poured colored sand. Beautiful and intricate!

The grounds of the Daisho-in were scattered with tons of little statues. Some of them were really cute, and people would leave coins or small trinkets on them as offerings to the deities they represented.

The cute little statues say: Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil

After Daisho-in, we basically snacked our way back to the ferry terminal. We sampled some grilled oysters (yum!), strawberry shaved ice (pretty cool, as rather than pouring syrup on plain shaved ice, they shaved the ice off of a large block of strawberries frozen in ice), an oyster croquette, and these:

Yes, we got our momji! We sampled some of the plain ones, but were very excited to try this stroke of genius: deep fried red bean and cheese momji!

A few more photos from the island:

An adorable firetruck

Pretty red and green maple trees

Leaving the holy island, we ferried, trained, and bused out to Iwakuni, for the sole purpose of visiting the Kintai-kyo, or "Ribbon Sash Bridge." Originally made entirely without nails, this is a really picturesque bridge that has 5 arches.

The Kintai-kyo - just like in the paintings!

Our reflection in a park on the other side of the Kintai-kyo

After that, we bused and trained back to Hiroshima and ate dinner at the station again. When I went to sleep that night, I was excited that we would be moving on to Kobe in the morning, but sad when I realized that that meant that we had reached our western-most destination, and we were turning around to start the return leg of our trip.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who says 13 is unlucky?

Happy 13th 17th (yesterday)!!

The hotel I'm staying in (at a conference*) actually has a 13th floor - maybe only the 2nd or so time that I've seen that.

*My excuse for being a day late? Giving a talk tomorrow at this conference in Minneapolis, trying not to spontaneously combust before then!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 9 in Hiroshima

May 10 - After breakfast at the hotel, we started out for the train station to make our train reservations. About halfway there, I felt for the camera (which I had been keeping on the strap to my shoulder bag). To my horror, there was no familiar chunk of metal, no strap hanging out of the zipper pocket; the bag was empty. Panicking a little (so many pictures on there! So many left to take!) I gaped at Brian and blubbered unintelligibly. I quickly unstrapped my pack and left him on the sidewalk, running the route back to the hotel and scanning the sidewalk for any sign of the camera. I was also a bit worried about missing the train (not really a huge deal, since we were now on the railpass and could catch any one but you know, when it rains...). At the hotel, I searched the breakfast area (no luck), and then I got the key for the room we'd checked out of. After a few seconds of frenzied searching, I flipped the sheets onto the bed and found it, our beloved camera, lying on the ground. Phew. Sprinting back to Brian, we resumed the trip to the train station and made it in plenty of time. Can you imagine, having to finish the trip with disposable cameras?! (Or more likely, we would have wasted some time buying a new digital camera, but still.)

On the platform at the train station, finally, sweaty and gross. Yuk. At least Operation: Camera Recovery was successful.

After about 2 hours on the shinkansen, we arrived at Hiroshima Station and dropped our bags off at our hotel, which was only a few minutes away. Though the area around the station was nothing special, I loved how convenient it was. Since most visitors to the city go for the sites related to the atomic bomb clustered in Peace Park, there is a convenient streetcar that runs from the train station to the park. We rode the streetcar to the end, and alit right outside of the A-bomb dome. This is one of the buildings that wasn't completely demolished when the bomb exploded (at 8:15am, Aug 6, 1945. Yes, I have that memorized - by the end of the day, we had heard or read the time/date a million times!) It was pretty moving, since they preserved all the debris and twisted metal of the building.

The ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the A-Bomb dome

View along the Motoyasu river. The A-bomb dome now resides alongside a beautifully rebuilt city.

We walked around the monuments in the park, and spent a long time at the Peace Memorial Museum. Here are some of the sights.

The Memorial Cenotaph, under which lies a stone coffin that holds the names of all victims of the bomb. In the background you can see the A-bomb dome, and between the two is the Peace flame, which will be put out when all nuclear weapons are gone (unfortunately, this won't be for a long time ).

The Children's Memorial, erected by Japanese elementary school children. On top is an image of Sadako Sasaki, the little girl behind the story of the 1000 origami cranes. She was dying of leukemia after the bomb, but thought that if she could fold 1000 cranes before her death, she would be granted one wish. There are conflicting reports about whether she actually finished them, but nevertheless she died and became yet another child victim of the bomb.

Near the Children's Memorial are a few small rooms where cranes from people all over the world are displayed. There must be a million of them, it is quite touching.

Some of the cranes folded by Sadako, in the Peace Museum

The Gates of Peace, a series of ten 9ft high gates that are inscribed in49 languages. 18 alphabets are used, but they all spell the same word: Peace.

The museum is highly recommended - there is a lot of information about what brought about the bomb, what residents of Hiroshima were doing when it went off, and what happened after. There are lots of haunting images and artifacts, like watches that stopped at exactly 8:15, and remnants of children's clothing collected by their grieving parents. We watched a couple of movies about survivors in English, and there is an area where you can watch videos of survivor interviews. One thing I found quite poignant was a wall of copies of letters sent by Hiroshima mayors to every city where nuclear weapons tests have been conducted. There are far too many of these up there (there have been over 2000 tests conducted since 1945 - most recently, N. Korea conducted tests just a couple of weeks ago.) Not knowing much about it, I was surprised to learn that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty basically prevented countries from starting up nuclear weapons programs (good) but allowed those that already had them at the time to keep them (stupid, stupid). Obviously an overly-simplistic summary, but that's the gist. Kind of ridiculous.

Though we think of Japan as one of the bad guys in World War II (and certainly my [Chinese] relatives have some strong opinions), in truth, atrocities are committed on all sides in times of war. Regardless of whose side you're on, seeing the consequences of such an act of total devastation, the effects of which are still felt today, was incredibly moving. Especially since so many who were affected were civilians, innocent children. There were many stories of kids who were helping to build firelanes that day, and were terribly injured in the blast, but somehow dragged themselves back to their houses. How awful for their parents. Or to have to go out and search the streets for your child/brother/mother, and find a part of them strewn among the rubble and ash and fire. Or to think that your child survived unscathed, only to have them develop purple spots on their skin and die slowly from "A-bomb disease" within a year. Tragic.

We left the museum somber and starving, and decided to go on a hunt for the real-deal okonomiyaki. There is a building called Okonomi-mura which has several floors entirely devoted to this dish. Literally, when you get off the elevator on any of its floors, you are greeted by 5 or 6 identical stalls with a cook tending a hot griddle. We picked one and sat down. There was a baseball game on that day, so many of the chefs were glued to small TVs in their stalls. The local team is called the Hiroshima Carp - how cute is that?!

The menu was the basic pancake, with optional additions of thick or thin noodles, cheese, squid, or shrimp. I had one with noodles and cheese, and Brian had one with squid.

Our chef expertlytends to our mounds of cabbage and pork

The chef ladles out some batter and smooths it into a crepe, cooks some cabbage, pork and the add-ins, piles that on the crepe and tops it all with a thin disk of scrambled egg. He paints the egg with some of the ubiquitous dark, tangy sauce, sprinkles it with flakes of seaweed, drops a small pile of pink gari (picked ginger) on top, and shovels it over to you. We were given small metal spatulas to eat with, straight off of the hot griddle. Pretty tasty, and very filling. Different from the one we had in Kyoto, where all the ingredients were mixed with the batter, and pan fried together.

Part stirfry, part pancake, part pizza. All delicious.

In the plaza right outside of Okonomi-mura, we stopped to watch a dance 'show'. I hesitate to even call it a show, because it consisted of a handful of guys and girls dressed in sock-hop type outfits dancing to music from the same era, but in no organized fashion. We kept waiting for a routine or something (hey, their outfits matched, we figured their moves would too), but nope. It was just a bunch of people twisting around randomly. A couple of the guys really liked taking their shirts off. Apparently no one else was entertained either, because there was no clapping when the music finished. (Not very) Interesting.

Random dancing. I forget what the names on their jackets were... "Cool Kidz" or something like that.

After that we walked through some of the shopping area around there, and headed back to Peace Park to finish up some of the monuments in the North end of the park that we had missed earlier. As night fell, we took the streetcar back to the train station. There we had dinner at a restaurant that had really tasty Tsukemen, a noodle dish native to Hiroshima where the noodles and other toppings come separately from the broth/sauce. We had one with cold sauce (probably mostly soy sauce, but with a sweet, oniony base) and one with warm miso sauce. You could specify the amount of spice (on a scale from 1 to over 20) - we went with level 2, the recommended 'starter' heat. Because of the potential splash-and-spray that could come with dipping and slurping, there were paper bibs on the table and we were implored to don them when the food came. It was all very delicious and refreshing, and I wish we had eaten there again! I later looked up the restaurant, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it is a branch of Bakudanya, the restaurant that is thought to have invented this style of Tsukemen. Yay culinary serendipity!

All bibbed up and ready to go. Actually, these bibs were more like aprons - with a tie at the waist, too!

Mmmmm, cold refreshing and actually pretty healthy. The eggs in Japan were always this vibrant orange color, and seemed tastier than eggs at home

And off we went back to the hotel to bed...but first, more evidence of the cuteness that is Japan:

You might guess that this is the storefront of a comic
shop, or toy store... nope, it's a real estate office!

A Fortnight in Japan - Eating in Tokyo and Kyoto

You may have noticed that the posts so far have really been more about the sights than tastes. You might be asking yourself, what happened to them? Were they too busy running around shrines and temples to enjoy the culinary wonderland that is Japan? Never fear, a significant portion of the trip was devoted to seeking out, consuming, and documenting the deliciousness that is everywhere there. I had written out a list of things that we wanted to eat, and we struck off every single item. We took pictures of almost all of it, and put them in a separate photo album on Picasa, all 196 photos. Definitely check them out if you want to build up an appetite quick! In this post, I just want to highlight some of the meals and snacks we had in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara.

Kara-age (fried chicken) buns at a bakery in a train station.
Japanese fried chicken is amazing, wherever you have it. Always
garlicky, flavorful, and crisp, even cold.

A typical vending machine at the entrance of a fast-food restaurant.
Put in your money, pick your poison, press the button and it spits out
a ticket that you give to your server. Genius!

Tasty, refreshing cold noodles in a lightly vinegary, sweet sesame oil and shoyu sauce.

Co-Co curry, a fast food curry restaurant found all over the place.
Huge portions of tasty, hearty curry and rice, with whatever you want
(here - fried chicken, and tonkatsu. We later had it with clams too.)

A huge bucket of fish roe for sale in a foodhall (sampling allowed).

Yesssss... Takoyaki... little balls of custardy batter with octopus
chunks. It starts out all liquidy, covering the whole grill, and then
the cook expertly pokes and flips it into these ball forms. you can
have it topped with mayo, seaweed flakes, bonito (dried fish) flakes,
cheese, and/or tonkatsu sauce. Beautiful.

Sushi at the Y100 restaurant on Pontocho Alley, Kyoto.
Scallops, mantis shrimp, and crab tomalley, all for about $6!

A bruleed egg tart in the shopping arcade in kyoto. It wasn't cheap,
but it was definitely creamy, sweet, and delicious.

Shabu shabu set up in Nara with a subtle, milky broth.

Beef and veggies cooking in nothing but buttah (in Nara).

Is your mouth watering yet?!