Monday, January 24, 2011

Ride that Bus: A Motivational Tale Told With Words

"I missed the bus"
- Kriss Kross

The only thing lower in quality than the items on sale at Wal-Mart are the people shopping there. But I don't mind. It's a big space with plenty of room for B.O. and secretive farts to wander far away from my snobbish nostrils. Now imagine all of those people crammed inside a small rectangular box. Place that box on wheels. Pencil in a door, and lastly install a row of windows so everyone rich enough to own a car can see that you don't. There are lots of kind-hearted, honest, good-looking folk who ride the bus, I've just never seen any.

But that's the bus in America. Now imagine a community of quiet obedient people in respectful clothing (minus the 50 year old in fish net stockings) transporting themselves through the town because there's too much snow on the ground. Welcome to 青森市/Aomori, a city in Japan annually averaging 233 inches of snowfall (compare that to Buffalo's 93.6 inches). Since I don't own a car, bicycling becomes my primary mode of transport. But when those snowflakes launch their attack, I look to my wallet to spring for a taxi or to my feet to traverse the whiteness. In other words, I stay home a lot. 

But being a new year, it's time to make an excuse for change. I thus decreed the time had come to ride the bus. Don't get me wrong, I've ridden a bus before. Talk about a mistake. You can study the kanji characters for as long as you want, but when no bus arrives at the time listed on the schedule, it becomes impossible (for an idiot like me) to know if he should board the next bus. See riding trains in Japan is a breeze. Each one always (99.9%) arrives on time, so one has just to use the departure/arrival times. Buses in Japan are punctual, but in the snowy horizon of Aomori all bets are off. 

Regardless, a cheaper alternative to access downtown was needed. For two years I had been wasting 1800yen ($20) on a taxi ride or trembling for 20 minutes in the cold to the nearest train station. It was worth the walk when the train was only ¥180, but when it increased to ¥250 for a one-way trip, the ¥300 bus seemed the logical choice. 

Thanks to a helpful friend and a fearless girlfriend, I was able to overcome my fear of buses. We began the process with the simple task of learning how and when to get downtown. We walked a mere 50 yards to the nearby Sakuragawa-Rokuchome bustop. Only one line feeds into it, meaning every bus that arrives is the one we want since conveniently they head directly downtown to 青森駅/Aomori Station. 

My Stop

It pains me to think how many times I forked over the cash for a taxi when I could have just hopped on the bus. Looking at the schedule below, it looks easy enough. But I was too scared of all the characters and the mysterious 4th column, which turned out to just state "weekdays" or "weekends/holidays." So once the basic characters were learned, it became second nature.

The Downtown Path

I'm happy to report that I'm riding the bus with ease. I take great pleasure of scaling the stairs in the middle doorway, grabbing my slip of paper, and sitting nervously in the back of the bus (I'm a minority) as I count my coins to make sure I have enough to cover the ever-increasing fare. But this is just to Aomori Station and back. Let's see how long it takes me to navigate myself to the cinema.

Happy bus riding everyone.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tourist Haven: Nebuta House Warasse

"How does one measure the success of a museum?"
- Paul Getty

Tourist Traps typicaly exist in areas highly trafficked by visitors with time and money at their disposal. So in January, 2011 when Nebuta House Warasse, Aomori's new Nebuta museum, opened, one could easily give it the aforementioned disctinction. However, despite the arrival of the shinkansen (bullet train), Aomori still remains a city on decline. Besides the first week in August during Nebuta Festival, the mother of all night-time float parades, there's little in the downtown vicinity to stimulate tourists.

Thankfully thanks to the tourist haven of the Nebuta House Warasse, conveniently located footsteps to the north of Aomori Station, people have something besides generic shopping and eating at an izakaya to spend their time and money on.

Nebuta House Warasse
Truth be told, this small museum and hall will never receive recognition from the International Museum Federation (if one existed), but it's the perfect fit for the city of Aomori. The building's red striped exterior adopts a modest yet invoking presence. Inside, designers stuck to a black and white pallete, thus opening up the entryway and interior hallways. As a bonus, while the red strips masked the museum's interior, once inside, one can easily see past the red stripes and peer outside towards the newly opened A-Factory market, the bridge, or the bay.
The Exhibit Midway
The museum itself, open 9am-7pm from May to August and closing at 6pm Stepmeber through April, is a bargain at ¥600 for adults, ¥450 for high school students, and ¥250 for elementary/junior high school students, with slight discounts available to groups of 10 or more.

Nebuta Mask: Inside & Out
The museum exhibits both impressing and a disapointment. The artistic yet technologically advanced design shatteres the stereotype of Aomori as a backwards slumbering farm land. The 'create your own custom Nebuta face' attraction is a can't miss, and since photography is permitted, it'll perfectly fit your facebook profile picture needs.

Crave's Ninja Shadow
The main attraction rests in the Nebuta Hall showcasing a handful of full-sized floats. For Aomori residents who regularly partake in the festival, these floats may be a familar yet un-exciting sight. However, for those visitors who are unable to visit Aomori in August, these floats are pure eye candy.

For those fluent in Japanese, volunteer staff (center) share centuries of stories.

Though with arguably only 3 exhibits, and the hall, Nebuta House Warasse isn't meant to be a day-filler, instead the Nebuta House Warasse is the perfect one to two hour compliment to a quaint afternoon making this museum a success.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Edible Hand Warmers

With average temperatures hovering in the mid-20s (, winter in 青森/Aomori is brutal. Luckily one Sunday afternoon I was able to escape the cold by boarding a heated bus. While my body recovered, my hands were so red and numb you'd think I had just administered a TSA pattdown on a snowman. Then to my surprise, a gift was bestowed. Two balls were quickly placed in the palms of my hands. Numbness subsided; warmth restored.

Metallic Spheres of Wondrous Warmth
Each ball had an aluminum foil wrapping and retained a family-sized helping of heat. But what lurked within the shiny silver skin of these heroic hand warmers?

the answer: sweet potato

When the need for heat expires, you aren't stuck with a blob of foil, you're rewarded with a savory morsel of orange-colored food! While in America many grow accustomed to greasy sweet potato fries and baked incarnations attacked by butter, on a winter's day a plain and simple sweet potato is a welcome festival in your mouth!

If you happen to be traveling in 青森市/Aomori City, be sure to make a stop at the green colored stand in front of the 青森駅/train station and for¥200 ($2.41) treat yourself to an edible hand warmer.

PS: Special thanks to Jaewon Yoo for introducing me to this warm and tasty concept!

Friday, January 7, 2011


My shoes are off (outside the house as well) to writer Steve Levenstein for effectively presenting Japan's onslaunt of quirky technological advances/backslides. Since May 2007, he has been piecing together fun-to-read posts about the latest gadgets and trends from square watermelons to a Steve Jobs action figure.

Pay a visit today to Inventor Spot's Japanese Innovations Writer page for Steve Levenstein and treat yourself to hoards of entertaining reads on mind-boggling junk (treasure).

Fat America: McDonald's Cooks Up Another Round of USA Burgers

They're back! Say hello to the newest batch of juicy quater pound stereotypes!
 Once again, America has invaded Japan. On January 7th, McDonald's rolled out its second wave of 'Big America' themed burgers. Those of you looking to fast track towards cardiac arrest while posing as a stereotypical American can look forward to four customized quarter pound beef patty sandwiches. The Texas2 is the first to debut with Idaho stampeding in late January, Miami swaying over in mid-February, and the Manhatten beeping its way through traffic in mid-March. Keep reading for individual reviews and in the meantime if you're fluent in Japanese head over to the McDonald's Japan official site. To recap the first round of 'Big America' please allow Steve Levenstein to cordially run down 2010's hearty burgers, or read the article in 日本語 (Japanese).