Beer Review: Kirin Heartland (ハートランドビール)

Price: 250 yen
Served in: 500mL bottle
In a few words: So damn close

Kirin's endearingly dubbed Heartland was the first bottle of suds I tried here that actually made something beery bubble up in my mind. I'd like to say that it made my taste buds scream, "Beer!" but really, what I got was more of a whimper, enough to make me think, "Beer... ?" In my book, this is an accomplishment by Japanese standards.

I tried this brew at the Beat Cafe in Shibuya, a favorite after-work drinking hole for me and my coworkers. It's stored in a fridge on the customer side of the bar; you grab one and plop it on the counter, and the bartender furnishes the bottle opener. It comes in a green, 500mL bottle, without any label to speak of except a small leaf around the neck. The front of the bottle is engraved with an attractive logo (also found on the cap) and the credo, "In Every Spirit & Every Season, Everywhere." Pretty ridiculous claim, if you ask me, but the bottle itself was a nice touch in a country where the can is king.

It starts off with a refreshing, pretty hoppy tang, sustains a barely discernible piney effect, and finishes with some sweet maltiness. It reminds me most of Becks or Heineken. In a way, it delivers the goods: you get the whole package of bitter and sweet, followed by a slightly boozy kick. There's even some citrus complexity in there, if you try really hard to find it. In another way, however, this beer fails in much the same way other Japanese beers fail: puny taste and limited range.

Outside of the taste, there is not much to speak of either way. The head is present, and provides a good amount of fizziness, at least at first. But there's no stickiness to it, nothing I can sink my lips into. The color is identical to that of any other Japanese beer; it's not unpleasant, but it also inspires no confidence. You know what to expect from a color like this. There is little if any aroma, and it smells no different than it tastes.

It's frustrating sometimes to try a beer like this. There's so much potential for greatness in this big green bottle, but it falls short because of its stubborn insistence on subtlety and quaffability. I can sense the quality here - it's pleasant all the way through. But really, the pleasantness is the problem. There's no balls in this beer, no bravado. I can't help but imagine that Heartland was something truly great when it first entered this world.

I can taste its roots: an incredibly diverse yet well-balanced concoction, flaunting fruitiness grounded in wholesome earthiness. Then, I visualize the tasting of the first batch: a collection of Kirin big-wigs seated around a cold white table, fluorescent lights blinking in the ceiling. They let that first drop hit their tongue and immediately let fear take its course. "The Japanese public will find the strong aftertaste off-putting," one taster sneers. With a toothy grimace, another offers, "The sour, bitter complexity of flavors may upset our core drinking market." "Can we take down the higher notes, and bring everything to a more mediocre range?" somebody in back sheepishly begs. "Where's the drinkability? People want drinkability!" this time from the well-trained parrot, is the final nail in the coffin.

It's not that Kirin's Heartland is bad. If it were, this review would have been much, much simpler. No, this beer will have to remain in my regular rotation, if only to give me a fleeting whisper, a reminder of the one that got away.


Food Review: チョコ棒 (Choco-Bo)

In the interest of providing a glimpse of everyday life here in Japan, I will be occasionally serving up some delicious reviews of uniquely Japanese foods. The inspiration for this came to me at the 100 yen ($1) store earlier tonight, when I was suddenly stricken by the variety and quantity of strange snack foods here. Actually, I guess it began when I found Pepsi White (that's right) at 7-11. I'm not blogging about that particular drink, though, as the Blogosphere is already inundated with buzz around this Pepsi and yogurt (that's right) blend. You can find a good review here: http://japanesesnackreviews.blogspot.com/2008/10/pepsi-white.html.

Name: チョコ棒 (Choco-Bo)
Price: 100 yen
Sweet/savory: sweet
In a few words: tastes as good as it looks!

I picked these up at my local 100 yen store, possibly because I was bored and wanted to torture myself. I was intrigued by the picture on the packages inside depicting the product. My logic went something like this: a sweet that looks like a nutty stool couldn't possibly taste like one. Plus, it was only 100 yen for 10 of these wonderful little poos, and I am not a man to pass up cheap sweets. There was also a certain attraction in the packaging; I can't explain it, but I think the Japanese have figured out how to tap into some deeper "spend center" of my brain with bright colors and pleasing designs.

On first picking up the package, I found it to be much lighter than the heavy-looking, seemingly choco-nutty bars that the picture suggested. I was half expecting this; at 10 yen a pop I was already prepared for disappointment. The name means "choco-stick," which is vague enough; it's actually even less information than the disturbing picture gave me. At least the picture gives a vague idea that these sticks may have come out of somebody who had spent the entire previous day eating peanuts, or maybe Cap'n Crunch.

The best way to describe the taste of these little gems is, "surprising." Notice that I left out the qualifying "pleasantly," because these were surprising in the worst way possible. Everything about that first bite is memorable to such an extent that I'm afraid it will never leave my mind. The chocolate was nothing but a thin layer, a rouse intended to disguise the truly evil contents of these sticks. If the chocolate were of a high quality, this would be slightly less insulting. However, it was a cocoa mix of the lowest caliber, something you might find on those prepackaged Hostess "Donettes," which immediately melted on my fingers.

After biting through the first nanometer of the snack, the chocolate ended and the pain began. What I found inside will continue to haunt my dreams until the day when sweet senility comes in to clear the slate and hush my fears to sleep. I don't doubt, however, that a disturbing, elusive shadow of the experience will remain somewhere in my mind along with all my other strongest memories. It was at that moment when I learned why the package was so light.

The core of the stick is nothing but Funyun with slightly less salt added and slightly more burned taste. Or maybe an unflavored puffed Cheeto that had spent a good amount of time behind the radiator. The taste of cheap, puffed corn mixed with a bouquet of old foot to create a truly rancid impression. There was also just the slightest hint of fish to round out the whole thing. (You find fish flavor inappropriately added to a lot of foods here; I'm convinced that the McDonald's fries are cooked with some sort of fish oil, which is actually quite good.)

For me, it was not any single element that made these nearly inedible, but a brilliant synergy of several factors. You start with the lowest-quality ingredients and make sure to put no thought into texture. Then, you disappoint with tiny amounts of near-chocolate. Inside, you give a healthy serving of fishy coagulated powder. Finally, you put it all together for the most bizarre and unpalatable experience possible. Well done Choco-Bo, this tour de force of offensive mediocrity is not easy to pull off.



I just developed my latest roll of pictures. Here is a selected assortment, complete with snarky comments.

Here it is: the first official picture of Alex in Japan. People complained about my earlier pictures because there were none that contained my image. Do you not trust me? Do you think this whole Japan thing is a hoax, and I'm really sitting in a secret U.S. location, surviving off of Easy Cheese and my own sick chuckles of delight when I think about all the people I'm fooling? Well here's the proof you needed... jerks.

This is at Shibuya station, very close to where I work. The statue is Hachiko, a dog who would loyally wait for his master at the station every day at the same time. Good doggy.

Hachiko is probably the most popular place in Tokyo for young people to meet up. I had to wait my turn for the photo op because it was so popular.

And yes, I promise I won't ever do the peace sign in a picture again.

I loved this sign so much, it's almost wrong.

Smoking is an interesting thing in Japan. You can smoke inside of many, many places; I had forgotten all about the "smoking or non-smoking?" question at restaurants until I came here. There's nothing like lighting up a Lucky Strike right after a big, greasy meal.

In crowded areas, however, smoking is discouraged on the street. So, they set up these smoking areas. The metal thing is basically a gigantic ashtray. There are a bunch of different signs in the same vein, but this is my favorite. The helicopter is a nice touch.

Bars here, like in any sane country, serve food, usually a wide selection of salty, fried things that go well with beer.

The menu at this place wraps around the entire bar. It's nothing special, but for somebody used to having nothing but pretzels and peanuts to accompany his beer, it's pretty beautiful.

I especially liked the sound of the "Cram with butter." I can't see how you could go wrong with that.

I had no idea what was going on here, but I decided to take a picture because people seemed generally interested in what was going on, so I assumed I should be too.

There have been many situations where I have nothing to go by but the reactions of others to tell what's going on. It's pretty fun, but a lot of the time, I never figure out what's happening, which can be frustrating.

The police are here basically for giving directions and performing glorified meter maid duties.

I imagine that morale among Japanese police must be low. They never have the opportunity to really flex their muscles. In the U.S., there's always another shirtless asshole around the corner, willing to take on the law with drunken force.

If the police weren't already enough of a joke, this is their symbol: a cuddly woodland creature with no pants.

Check out the dueling DSes! I thought this picture did a good job of capturing the feel of a late-night subway ride here. It's very quiet, and people stick to themselves even more than usual.

People play DS just about wherever they feel like it. I've seen guys riding a bike while playing DS, juggling the stylus, the handlebars, and their own lives.

Pet shops are pretty depressing here. I found this tiny place in the back alleys of Shinjuku. As I stood there, trying to get some shots for my photo-journalistic exposé, a bunch of young Japanese women came up and checked out the animals as well. Among their enthusiastic giggles, the only word I could make out was "Kawaii!" ("cute").

I like the dog in the lower right cell. He also seemed the most distraught by his situation, never taking his eyes off of the pet shop owner, sitting just to the right.

I was pretty depressed about seeing this, but then realized that Japanese people pretty much live the same way. The pet shop owner himself was crammed behind a desk in a tiny capsule of a room.

A snapshot of daily life: my Alien Registration Card; PASMO card with one-month unlimited rides between my station and Shibuya stamped on it; incredibly useless Japanese deodorant; water mug; and of course, a Suntory Whiskey cap.

I got the picture for my ID taken at a photo booth near my house. You can see my excitement about being in Japan in my use of the always-creepy "crazy eyes."

Those crazy Japanese just can't seem to get it right! I know that English is a very foreign language, but they study it for years in school. I'm convinced that most of the "mistakes" they make are intentional; a way to assert the superiority of the Japanese language by making English look silly and juvenile.

I'm not sure what they were going for here, but the place was actually called Bar Pee. It was on the sign and everything. Maybe they're just being honest about the quality of Japanese beer?

In katakana, just above the word "Pee," "pee" is written again, just in case somebody missed it.

Also, here you can see me in my usual work outfit. I love the white shirt/black tie combo; it's such a classic. However, one of the Japanese people at my school informed me that black ties are only worn at funerals in Japan. So what do they think when they get an invitation to a "black-tie event"?

Here's another attempt at some arsty-fartsy photography. I'm happy that I was able to capture the action of the pigeons, especially the one in the middle with its wings fully spread.

When I encountered this, I was surprised that a Japanese person would invite an animal so dirty as the pigeon into his dining establishment. Perhaps he's found a clever way to acquire free, fresh poultry?

More likely, the pigeon is not considered a "winged rat" in Japan. They probably see it as the noble dove it truly is. Cats are seen as a pest here; I've seen cat-repelling scent packets for sale at 100-yen stores... in case you're sick of your leg being rubbed by soft fur?


A Recent Gaba Conversation

When I went to my three-day training for Gaba, the school where I teach, one of the first things that they talked about was "appropriate behavior and topics." They even presented us with one of those ridiculously clumsy acronyms, I suppose in the hopes of helping us to remember: WARPS+C. I love it when people just tack on an extra letter to an otherwise nice-sounding acronym; it's like making a pun that just almost works. You really want to share it with your friends, so you hope nobody will notice the discrepancy. Why not just make it "CWARPS"? It's a fun way to so say "dead body," yet another presumably taboo topic.

Anyway, WARPS+C stands for War (presumably WWII), Age (don't ask a student how old they are), Religion (although "Japanese religion" is an oxymoron on the scale of "American cheese"), Politics (Obama-McCain is a popular topic in my lessons these days), Sex (only say it with your eyes), and Culture (as in, "Wow, your culture sure is messed up!").

All of these topics, and so many more that the Gaba brass couldn't incorporate into a cute acronym, have been main talking points during my lessons. I spend a lot of my time at work enduring ridiculously dull conversations with people who can barely speak my language. Why not spice things up a bit? I jump at the slightest hint that Yoko wants to tell me about her current French boyfriend, and how he differs from her previous French boyfriend. I savor every moment that Tomoyuki wants to spend recounting his debaucherous night out. I'm so sick of hearing the mundane details of businessmen's jobs that I crave the cretinous and seek the scandalous whenever possible.

The other day, I had a conversation that even I felt was bordering on inappropriate. I reached some point where I was pretty sure somebody's feelings were going to get hurt. Here is a rough transcript of the exchange:

New student, Akihiro, and I are chatting in my booth (a euphemism for "half-sized cubicle"). After five or ten minutes of warm-up banter, I ask the usual question: "So do you want to continue our conversation or go to the book?" He opted for conversation. I knew I was halfway to something interesting. We had been talking about his trip to New York, so I continued:

Alex: So did you go out at night at all in New York?
Akihiro: Haha, no. New York very dangerous.
Al: Heh, yeah I understand. It must be strange for a person from Tokyo to go to New York. Tokyo is so safe!
Ak: Yes, Japan is very safe country. One of most safe countries in the world.
Al: I've noticed that, actually. I've never felt scared walking around Tokyo at night.
Ak: No, no reason to be scared. There is no crime.
Al: Well, there must be some crime...
Ak: Yes, of course there is crime, but no much at all.
Al: Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why is Japan so safe compared to other places?
Ak: Hmm... [long pause. he considers this for a while] I think it must be because Japan is a small country surrounded by ocean, so it's very hard for criminals to come in.
Al: Haha! [I stop laughing when I see he's serious] Ok, maybe no foreign criminals can come in, but what about Japanese criminals?
Ak: [seems very confused] Japanese criminals?
Al: Yes, like a Japanese person? What if a Japanese person came up to you with a knife and said, "Give me all your money"?
Ak: HAHAHAHAHAHA! [he laughs and laughs] No, that would never happen.
Al: Really? Why not? [I've been so bored all day, I'm really milking this for all it's got]
Ak: [he thinks this over for a long while] I think Japanese people very peaceful.
Al: Ok, that's fair enough. But what about really poor people, or homeless people? Don't you think they might get desperate and try to steal?
Ak: No, homeless people are very weak. They cannot do anything.
Al: I see...
Ak: Yes, Japanese people very peaceful. They don't want conflict.
Al: Ok, but why do you think Japanese people are especially peaceful? Like, more than any other country?
Ak: [pensive for a long while] I think is maybe because atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Only country in the world to have atomic bomb dropped on it. Maybe we want peace now.
Al: [I got really embarrassed at this point, and realized maybe he brought this up to shut me up. I ended with something stupid like] Maybe we should all have an atomic bomb dropped on us, then we would all be peaceful.
[uncomfortable laughter on both sides]
Ak: Sometimes, Japanese high school boys go to Yoyogi park and kill homeless people.
Al: They kill them?
Ak: Yes, maybe set them on fire. They cannot defend themselves.
Al: Wow...

So there you have it: the most uncomfortable conversation I've had yet at Gaba. I say "yet" because I know there is much, much more to come.


The Little Differences

My favorite scene in Pulp Fiction is when Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are driving down the street, discussing Vincent's trip to Europe:

"But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It's the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here but it's just, it's just there it's a little different."

This is something I always thought about a lot when traveling. The way a crosswalk sign is designed does more to remind me that I'm in a foreign place than the fact that I'm technically under a different political jurisdiction. After all, what would really make a "big difference"? I guess if I had some sort of Spidey sense that constantly reminded me of my exact longitude and latitude, my head would be swimming.

But it really is the little differences that remind me of where I am, and now it's my turn to pretend that Jules has just prompted me with his economical invitation, "Example."

1. My shower talks to me. When I switch on the heat, an adorable-sounding Japanese woman stuck inside of the control panel tells me something through the little speaker. I don't know what she's saying and I prefer to keep it that way. This way, my imagination can take over. "Hello Alex," she says every morning, "I've been waiting for you. Oh! tee-hee, look what you've done! You've turned me on. Now I'm all hot... and wet. Gosh, it's getting steamy in here." My morning shower is very important to me.

(Quick note: I could literally go on with this forever, using such fun terms as "push my buttons," "lathering up," "slippery," and "water hose." And sometimes? I do.)

2. The beer is unimpressive. I spent a considerable amount of effort trying to adjust to the light, boring beer here, and I just can't do it. The upshot is that I've been drinking less beer. The other, more important upshot is that I've been drinking more crazy shit. The other night I actually drank Long Island Iced Teas. Three of them. But my favorite is still the shochu in a milk carton. Scares off the damn lactose intolerants. The lushes...

Other fun booze/packaging combos include the shochu in a can (refrigerated, if possible), the sake in a sealed cup decorated with the cutest pandas, and the everything-I-drank-last-night in the corner of my room. I call that one the "Sunrise Surprise."

3. My room smells like tatami. It has to be the smell that I will associate most with this place when and if I finally leave. Made of straw, tatami gives off this wonderfully hearty, sweet grainy smell. When I first entered my room, I thought it stank. But upon second whiff, I was already getting used to it. On the third try (and after a few minutes of airing out the room) I was quite pleased. It's like somebody next door is burning some sandalwood incense, and I just get a nice, subtle effect.

4. I get dirty looks. This might seem like a big difference, but I already got plenty of them back home. Plus, a Japanese dirty look is no more obvious than an American "hey, did he just fart?" inquisitive look. And those, I am certainly used to.

The other day, I stopped at a bakery and got a curry bun thing. I was hungry, and there were no tables at the bakery. So, instead of going on the subway with my food (a gigantic no-no), I decided to inconspicuously enjoy my nosh in an alley (a slightly smaller no-no). I thought I was safe, until a wave of people came out of the station and through my dining room. Most people ignored me, as they are wont to do. One girl, however, decided to give me the nastiest, most prolonged scowl I've ever seen. Since the nastiness matched her stripper-chic outfit, ratty face, and soulless eyes, it all sorta blended together, and I wasn't too offended.

5. The vending machine is my friend. Mainly because it's the only place where I can get a decent coffee. Although it's cold and in a can, it certainly beats the weak, beige water they serve up at diners here. Plus, at only 120 yen, it's about 1/4 the price. Also, the vending machines at train stations take my Pasmo card.

The Pasmo is an RFID card that stores and deducts money for the train. It allows me to get through the turnstile with just the tap of my wallet. Not only can I use it to pay for the train, but also for anything I buy at stores or vending machines in the train station. Some random establishments outside of the train stations will take them too: I paid for a beer at a bar the other day by tapping my wallet on a pad. Once I have a cell phone, I will be able to have my Pasmo put inside of it.

Yeah, that's right.


The Difficulty of Discovery

The second thing that struck me about Tokyo is how familiar everything could be if I didn't make a conscious effort to seek out the different. Sure, the signs are all in Japanese and people drive on the wrong side of the road, but the golden arches are the same wherever you go.

The beer comes in a can decorated with a badass dragon, but it all kind of tastes like Corona. The train that took me from Narita to Shinjuku was sleek and furnished in shiny black and lipstick red but, despite the decadent 1980s feel, it still worked the same way BART does.

I love it when I finally get past what just looks different to what really is. It usually takes a leap of faith and some cojones, but the reward has been well worth it so far.

The other day, I had just spent a somewhat listless time in Shibuya. I'd gone just to "check it out," which is never a good start to a trip. You check out a new restaurant's menu or a documentary on Channel 9, not a major neighborhood in a completely foreign land. It was drizzling - not even a real storm, which would have at least been mildly exciting - and I constantly felt like I was walking against the current of foot traffic. I spent most of this time avoiding the dreaded umbrella to the eye. Being taller than everybody else does have its drawbacks.

Finally, I decided to find a bar, preferably a place where I could sit down and enjoy a hot sake. This meant a more traditional establishment. This is always difficult, because this type of place rarely has a sign in English, much less bartenders from Australia. I could tell by the wooden exterior of one spot that maybe I had found my target. I couldn't quite tell, however, because I had to walk down some stairs to get there.

At the bottom of the stairs, I crossed some stepping stones set into a koi stream. On my first step, I almost fell in. I was caught off guard by a clamoring chorus of greetings and enthusiastic shouts from the staff. This is standard at any Japanese establishment, but this place was especially loud. I literally jumped with surprise. I then realized this was an izakaya: a Japanese pub specializing in getting you drunk and feeding you the right stuff to go with it.

They pulled me in and sat me down at a large communal table. I ordered shochu (somehow, in Japanese!) and when the waiter asked me a question, I responded with the one word I heard him say: mizu (water). Turns out, he was asking what I wanted the shochu mixed with (they never drink it straight). This shochu mizu was tasty and surprisingly refreshing.

Next, they brought a tray of small dishes and indicated that I could take one. I chose some small fish, served cold in a tempura batter. It was nothing special, but still good. As I was eating these, they brought me a menu (in English) and an entire cabbage with some sort of mayo-based sauce on the side. How the hell am I supposed to eat this with chopsticks? was my first thought. I saw somebody else with the same in front of him and decided I'd wait and see what he did, but the asshole didn't touch it. Am I supposed to wait for something else? A salad spinner? Some corned beef?

Eventually I just dug in and somehow ate the whole thing with my chopsticks. The older couple across from me seemed interested in what I was doing. I thought maybe it was just because I kept dropping cabbage leaves on my lap and then quickly snatching them up and slyly putting them back on my plate. These people must be admiring my couth, was my conclusion.

Soon enough, I saw others eating their cabbage with their hands.

I ordered pickled bonito guts and deep-fried tofu, both marked especially as dishes to be eaten with sake. The guts were great: salty and incredibly rich, they tasted kind of like liver. But like brined seafood liver. The texture wasn't great and it was difficult eating the goo with the sticks, but I happily finished the little bowl. The tofu was breaded with panko and topped with incredibly thin bonito flakes. It was clear that the flakes had just two seconds ago been thrown on top of the hot tofu: they curled and twisted and collapsed in on themselves. For a moment, I thought there must have been a living thing moving just beneath the surface.



The first thing that struck me about Tokyo is how different everything looks. I'd heard about the ubiquitous vending machines, but seeing them everywhere - even adjacent to fields and other places that looked powerless - was a shock. There's something about a brightly lit, futuristic-looking machine in front of a field of green that is striking.

Before coming here, I'd heard about the contrast between old and new. That was supposed to be one of Japan's "things." What I couldn't imagine was the effortless, crisp cleanliness of this contrast. Everything seems to be compartmentalized as much as possible, like a bento box.

There's a small shrine near my house. The whole place is so silent and peaceful that a surprised cicada was enough to scare the living bejesus out of me. But, it's flanked on all sides by modern Tokyo: parking lots; vending machines; tiny, absurd cars; a 7-11. What struck me was the impermeable barrier between the two atmospheres. Even though the parking lot was visible from the graveyard, it wasn't intruding on it. Even though the shrine was visible from the 7-11, I didn't stop once to contemplate the torii from the frozen section.

I was at Tokyu Hands yesterday. It's a gigantic department store geared toward "do-it-yourself" enthusiasts. (Thus, the "Hands" part. Get it?) So, it stocks all kinds of things, from toys to lumber. I saw a sign somewhere in English: "A Place for Everything, And Everything in Its Place." They should put that on their flag.