31 December 2010

Dan & Kath Visit Edinburgh, Day 1

It's been a while, hasn't it? In case you missed the memo, Nana and I have moved to a new blog (not to mention a new continent!) over at The Senseitions. But just a few days before we left Edinburgh at the end of July, my parents, Dan & Kathy, came for a visit. 

While the Senseitions drifts into its Christmas-break lull, I thought I'd try to put up a post or two about our distinguished guest and their whirlwind tour of Scotland.


We spent the morning of our first day in Edinburgh proper, taking in the sights, such as the Castle, viewed from outside the parental unit's hotel in the Grassmarket.

 Then, after a hot drink at the Elephant House and a stroll through Greyfriar's Kirkyard, a stop at the observation deck of the National Museum.
 After which we toured the Castle itself for a bit.
 On the way down the Royal Mile, we stopped for a photo of St. Giles from Parliament Square West.

 With the Fringe Festival less than a week away, the Royal Mile was already seeing a smattering of street performers.
Scottish Borders

We spent the afternoon tootling around the Scottish Borders, taking a rural route recommended by my dissertation advisor. The photo below was taken roughly at the southern border of Midlothian, looking north. If you look closely, you can see Arthur's Seat (between our heads) and Castle Hill (to the left of my head) in the distance.
Typical upland scenery in Scotland: high, grassy hills that defy any sense of scale. (For reference, those tiny white dots in the foreground are sheep.)
The road we took wound through a municipal golf course and several working pastures, so we got pretty up close and personal with some of the sheep.
 Our first stop in the Borders was St. Ronan's Well in Innetleithen. (Innerleithen is also home to Robert Smail's Printing Works, which we posted about a while ago.)

 A pretty spot, for sure.

From Innetleithen, we continued on to Abbotsford, the palatial country home of one Sir Walter Scott.

I did my dissertation on a topic related to Sir Walter Scott, and had joined some colleagues for a tour a few weeks before, so this time I found myself playing the tour guide. A little practice for getting back in the classroom!

After Abbotsford, we stopped at nearby Melrose Abbey, one of several famous medieval abbeys in the Scottish Borders. Melrose Abbey is built in the Gothic style (check out those pointed arches). Of course, old red sandstone abounds.

We also made a brief stop at Rosslyn Chapel on the way back, but it's a hard place to take photos, so if you want to see the place I'll have to direct you to the Rosslyn Chapel Trust.

We ended the day back in Edinburgh with a hearty Scottish meal at Greyfriar's Bobby's Bar (background)--and, of course, the obligatory photo with Bobby out front.

22 August 2010

My new camera . . .

. . . is pink. We decided that means I have to take photos with both pinkies up.

The new camera is also waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof--which is how I ended up with a pink one, since the Besto Denki outlet only had the one Fujifilm WP Z in stock.

I figure, if I can get all that for under $90, I don't care if it's pink!

20 August 2010

Reminder: Head On Over to The Senseitions!

Just a reminder:

If you haven't already, check out our new Japan blog, The Senseitions (thesenseitions.blogspot.com).

Note: If you've signed up for e-mail updates or newsfeeds from The Educated Burgher, you'll have to sign up again on the new site. Same old procedure, though!

15 August 2010

Moving to New Blog: The Senseitions

Nana and I have finally decided to make the jump to a new blog, The Senseitions (http://thesenseitions.blogspot.com/), where we'll document all our Japanese adventures.

There's a chance we'll still post the occasional Scotland story here--we do have some photos from my parents' visit last month--but for the most part, The Educated Burgher has run its course. So head on over to the new site, sign up for the e-mail feed, and keep in touch!

14 August 2010

Slate on the Slow Demise of the Japanese Economy

Alexandra Harney of Slate has an interesting article up today about the perfect storm of economic stagnation and demographic decline that for the last decade-plus has had the Japanese economy locked into a slow downward spiral. The occasion for the article is a macabre hunt for bodies: some Japanese families have been hiding the deaths of their elderly relatives so as to continue collecting their retirement benefits, as in some cases one or two generations of un- or underemployed family members depend on these benefits to make ends meet. (You may remember a news story a week or so back about how the world's oldest man, a Tokyo resident, turns out to have passed away quite some time ago.)

But the article goes far beyond simple sensationalism, describing how many signs suggest that the US could be in the early stages of a similar spiral: high youth unemployment and underemployment, high and rising education costs, fears of deflation suppressing expansion, and aging population, and near-total legislative deadlock. Of course, in my opinion, the US may have a few trump cards up its sleeve that Japan doesn't, such as a stronger small-business tradition and, all the current noise about the issue aside, a much better track record of attracting, legalizing, and retaining immigrants. (Japan's extremely strict immigration policies certainly don't help with its shrinking population!)

On a different note, it turns out Fukuoka is one of the places in Japan bucking these trends: despite a downturn in the city's banking industry, according to Wikipedia Fukuoka is Japan's second-youngest city (average age: 38) and second-fastest-growing. There still seem to be a lot of unoccupied apartments--though I suspect that's partly the result of folks traveling for the summer, as well as the result of multi-generational families consolidating under one roof.

13 August 2010

A Japanese Dinner

We've had a lot of questions from friends and family about the food here in Japan. Well, we're happy to say that we really haven't had a bad meal yet. And when you can't read the menu, there's a lot of serendipity involved in procuring a meal.

Last night, for example, Nana and I went downtown for dinner with some friends. We chose the restaurant by the time-honored method of walking until we were too hungry not to stop at the first cool-looking place we saw. Then, as a group, we ordered one each of the five items on the "best" menu. (We couldn't tell if these were the specials or the most popular dishes. Or, of course, those with the highest profit margin.)

Here's what we got (with apologies in advance for the poor picture quality, and for the fact that I was a little slow with the camera at times):

-A fried scallion pancake, similar to a dish we had in Korea.

-Breaded & fried chicken with a mild mustard, ginger, & garlic sauce.

-Fried tamago (mildly sweet egg) stuffed with fish eggs. Gone too quickly for me to get a good photo!

-Simple fried gyoza (pork dumplings with a soy dipping sauce).

-Beef belly (think bacon, but with beef) stewed with potato & onion.

When we finished with these, we asked the waiter (in halting Japanese) to recommend something else. We ended up with motsunabe, a dish that originated right here in Fukuoka.

Motsunabe is a type of nabemono, which basically means it's a simple soy broth with a bunch of meat and veggies piled in it, and it cooks right in front of you at your table. The meat in Motsunabe is usually either pork or beef offal. Ours was cow stomach!

Which brings me to another early lesson we've learned about Japanese food: so far, it seems like they can take just about anything and make it tasty. That's not to say there isn't simple food here--one of the best meals we've had so far was basically a bowl of chicken noodle soup, sumo-style. But not knowing what we've been ordering has also led us to some great meals I don't think we would have found on our own.

11 August 2010

Yakuza 3 Video Game Reviewed By . . . Yakuza

The Yakuza are Japan's traditional organized crime syndicates. They have all the mystique here that old-school gangsters do in the US, and then some, so it's not surprising that Sega has build not one, but three video games around Yakuza culture.

What's more interesting is that Jake Adelstein, an American writer who worked the Tokyo crime beat, has gotten some of his old Yakuza contacts to test-drive the game. Here's his article, via BoingBoing.

So How's the Weather in Fukuoka?

Hot and humid, but not quite as humid as we'd expected.

You see, when we heard Fukuoka had a rainy season, we assumed it was the same time as the rainy season in Korea, which after all is only a 3-hour ferry ride away. In Korea, summer comes in June, with a month of high temperatures and high humidity but relatively little rain, aside from the frequent but short afternoon thunderstorms. Then with July and August (give or take a few weeks) comes the rainy season, when it rains for days on end--and is so cloudy and humid the rest of the time that it might as well be raining.

Fukuoka, it turns out, is the opposite. The rains come in June and July, then the relatively drier summers season occupies August and part of September. So it's been hot as heck, but with some sun nearly every day!

07 August 2010

A busy moving-in Saturday

We promise better theme-oriented posts later but for now I thought I'd give you some more scattered scenes from "A day in the life of a teacher moving into Fukuoka International School."

Kumi is the FIS equivalent of Paul from APIS, hero of our Korea days, and she has been doing yeoman's work these last weeks moving all the faculty in. Back at APIS, the school took out long leases at different apartments around the neighborhood (or "dong" - which is the Korean word for "neighborhood," I kid you not) and moved teachers into the apartments as their contracts dictated. FIS is different, as each teacher shops for his or her own apartment and takes out his or her own lease. This is great in the sense that teachers can have more control over their layouts and locations, but really difficult for Kumi. She has to find out teacher preferences, find appropriate and foreigner-friendly listings, schedule viewings, make offers, negotiate rates, and sign contracts, all in a matter of days. And did I mention that Japanese apartments don't come with any appliances?

Justin and I chose back in March or so to pick up the lease of a former FIS teacher, actually the woman who held the same high school history post I'm taking. We feel kind of guilty about how leisurely and inexpensive this has made our move-in. We paid the teacher a lump sum for the major appliances and furniture in the apartment, which was much less than the replacement value, and which did not begin to touch the miscellaneous things we've since discovered, like the speakers, iPod dock, power strips, toaster, detergent, and jar of Nutella. (What? Justin likes Nutella.)

Today we tagged along with Kumi and the other teachers to the electronics store because we decided we wanted to add a blender and a computer monitor (for Slingbox TV viewing) to our embarrassment of riches. Thanks to Kumi's masterful negotiations, the price of the blender was reduced by about ten dollars, nearly half the price, and twenty dollars came off the computer screen. Oh, and they sold us the audio cable we needed for the speakers at about 1.30 off, which was kind of funny.

We had lunch at the mall food court next door - Korean food! Well, we always said that Korea has several really good meals, just not enough variety to eat for six months straight. And we had a Mister Donut, which Pittsburgh readers may remember from its failed attempted US expansion during Justin's childhood (they were vanquished by Dunkin).

After that... there was some unpacking to do, and some sorting, and some school planning, but it's a coastal 95 degree day and we just came from twelve months in Scotland. Clearly the right choice was to join fellow teacher Matt and his wife Ashley at the beach. A short ten-fifteen minute bike ride and massive applications of SPF 50 later, and we were in the water. The ocean here is so warm that after you've been in for a bit you have to get out and let the air on your skin cool you down. There is also a schizophrenic attitude towards tanning: some people are toasted golden brown and lying out in the sun, while others swim with shirts on over their bathing suits. It was a novel experience for Justin and me not to be the pastiest people on a beach. I'm honestly not sure this has ever happened before.

This evening we went to the grocery store and ended up in the middle of a street fair with some weird petting zoo going on, of which I think Justin took some pictures for later. The groceries are generally quite expensive here, particularly produce of any kind. Bananas are reasonable at around 95 cents a bunch, but everything else is quite high. Partly that's because we're used to UK prices on produce, which has come down significantly thanks to the EU trade zone, and partly it's because we've been away from the US and its inflation for so long that we've completely lost track of what things "should" even cost there anymore. Is $2 reasonable for maybe 1/3 of a cup of blueberries? Is 75 cents reasonable for a kiwi? I don't know. But I do know that the okra looks inexpensive, and so did a giant turnip, so it's off to Allrecipes.com to find something to make with those!

05 August 2010

Some move-in thoughts

Moving in has gone beyond smoothly here. The school has put us and the other new teachers up at a hotel (the Hotel Twins Momochi) while we move in, and the room is tiny (typical for Japan) but very clean and, most importantly, with excellent air conditioning. For your own reference, the yellow P1, P2, P3, and P4 buttons on the hotel television remote (the most prominent buttons) do NOT take you to presets, but rather, to dirty movies. I am seriously hoping those two seconds don't show up on the school's bill for the room.

Our new apartment is small, but we're pretty much used to that, and the more we sit in it, the better it feels. The small size is encouraging us to think critically about how much junk we really need, and about organizing and storing it in the most efficient and aesthetic way. We started inventorying the stuff left by the last teacher (and the teacher before her, I think, from the Canadian currency) on Tuesday and choosing what to keep and what to give away to other teachers. To our utter amazement, our shipment showed up today. All but one of our twelve boxes is now unpacked in the new apartment, and I'm boggled by how much clothing I own even after getting rid of three bags to charity shops in Edinburgh.

We have had... let's see, maybe eight meals now? And really, no complaints! I am not completely clear on dates after Monday, when we had cold buckwheat noodles, which we used to have in Korea as well, and tasted great on a hot day. Monday's dinner was ramen (salty soy for me, spicy for Justin). We've had sushi at a great little neighborhood place, owned by an awesome older couple who felt it their duty to teach us sushi vocabulary by pointing at things and enunciating them - at the soy sauce, MU-RA-SA-KI; for picked ginger, GA-RI (see, I was paying attention!). There are two different fast-food burger joints nearby, the most important distinction being that Lotteria's fries taste just like McDonald's', and Mos Burger's fries are like Wendy's'. Today we had "sumo soup," which does not contain actual sumo but rather is, in larger portions, the preferred food of sumo for weight gain. I had this soup when I went to Tokyo with the APIS (Korean school) 8th grade, and loved it, and Justin feels the same way, but we figure we'd better restrain ourselves lest we inadvertently end up fit for nothing but sumo.

Which shouldn't be a problem with all the BIKING we've been doing! I haven't been on a bike since I lived in New Haven five years ago and, although my legs aren't thrilled with the change, I'm really enjoying it. On a bike, our apartment is less than five minutes from the school, with a lovely ride over the river footbridge (pictured in the previous post). We have seen multiple cranes on the river (birds, not construction equipment), old dudes fishing, and tonight, a marvelous sunset. We haven't gotten to the beach yet but it's next on our list. Not twenty minutes by bicycle! Good thing I bought a suit before we left the UK!

In other words, Justin and I are just delighted with everything so far. We have traveled enough to know that we're in the honeymoon phase of culture shock (the others, if you're interested, are rejection, regression, acceptance, and the ever-amusing reverse culture shock), but we are optimistic that Fukuoka is going to be a great place to live.

04 August 2010

Evening in Fukuoka

Just a teaser: a few pics from the new cell phone. The top photo is of the little river in our neighborhood, between the apartment and the school. The bottom is the view from our front door.

Safely in Fukuoka!

Nana and I arrived safely and on time Monday morning, and everything's been going smoothly since then. Even the weather is cooperating--blisteringly hot, of course, but so far not much rain!

Expect a longer post sometime later this week, once we have internet set up at the apartment.

29 July 2010

Farewell, Edinburgh--and, Keeping the Educated Burgher in Japan

Well, the time has come: Nana and I are frantically packing up our flat and saying our goodbyes. We don't actually fly out until Sunday morning, but between now and then we have to move out, shop, pack, and squeeze in every possible minute with the friends we've made this year.

We do have a few more Scotland stories to post, however, which we hope to put up during the first few weeks of our time in Japan.

We've also decided to keep the Educated Burgher indefinitely, turning it into a more general blog that will follow us wherever we go. This will also allow us to mix posts about prior experiences in with the new. Eventually, we hope to import our Korea blog, School of ROK, so you can follow all our adventures right here at the Educated Burgher.

We figure, hey, we're both educated, we're both educators, and we're both Burghers (ie, Pittsburghers).

So! So long for now--and the next time you hear from us, we'll be in Japan!

25 July 2010

The Shornkeys: Noss and Bressay on the Dunter III

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

We're coming to the end of our Shorkney posts, which is probably good, since we're also coming to the end of our time here in Scotland (more on that later).

But we've saved one of the best for one of the last: a day trip on the Dunter III to the Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland.

We hadn't originally planned to take the Dunter III "seabirds-and-seals" cruise, but all our other attempts to get out on the water (in sea kayaks, on a big sailboat, etc) were scrapped by rough seas. But on our last day in Shetland we had calm seas and two empty spots on a last-minute wildlife cruise.

And I am so glad all those other plans fell through! The Noup, which is the local name for the largest of the seabird cliffs on Noss, is truly a world-class natural wonder. As we were pulling out of Lerwick Harbor, our guide and skipper kept lamenting all the tourists on the pier who had "come to Niagara and missed the falls." I have to admit, at first I dismissed this as the hyperbole of a fanatic naturalist--but he was right, the Noup really does belong in the same category as Niagara Falls.

Of course, the bubbling (even childlike) enthusiasm of the Dunter III's crew--much touted in every review I've read of their service--only added to the sense of wonder. Nana and I peppered them with questions throughout the trip, and there wasn't an answer they didn't seem delighted to share.

Seriously, if you only do one thing in Shetland, do this.

Now, to the tour . . .

We started out by going north out of Lerwick, passing a seafood processing plant where the old seals like to hang out (for the free food).

From there, we flitted back and forth between some of the smaller islands in the harbor area. Some of these islands, unlike the larger islands, were sheep-free, with overgrown thickets of wildflowers and grasses providing a perfect habitat for wildlife.

At the little island above, we even caught a brief glimpse of an otter, trying to keep his catch away from a black-backed gull. Otters are famously shy, and according to my dissertation adviser (who has advised me on so much more than my dissertation!), in Scotland seeing one is kind of a big deal. Unfortunately, I could only spy his little head for maybe a second before he got away, but Nana got a much better look. Alas, I couldn't manage a photograph.

From there we circled the rest of the way around Bressay and passed through the narrow strait between Bressay and Noss. This strait, called Noss Sound, is a major breeding and feeding ground for sand eels, which are an important source of food for many of the seabird species around Shetland. Here we were lucky enough to see a puffin in flight. They're much smaller than you'd expect--not much bigger than the span of your hand. They love sand eels, so they make their nests in the hills above the strait.

Apart from its wildlife, Noss Sound is also just a beautiful spot. The ruins of an old WWII signal station crown the hill to the west, but otherwise all is green, blue, and gold. Noss itself has been uninhabited since 1939; it's now all pasture and nature reserve.

Noss Sound is also where the "ferry" crosses from Bressay to Noss. You can see the ferry here:

It's the little inflatable outboard tucked away in those rocks.

From Noss Sound we continued around the southern side of Noss. We passed a few small seabird colonies as we rounded the southeastern tip of the island--black guillemots mostly, whose markings make them look kind of like little penguins, though of course these guys can fly!

The coasts of Noss and Bressay are also shot through with sea caves like these.

But the Noup itself was clearly the highlight. After a look at what I thought were some pretty impressive seabird colonies near the southeastern tip of Noss, we passed a small headland and the Noup came into view.

Words fail me here. The cliff is enormous, bleached white by droppings, completely covered with black guillemots and northern gannets.

(Gannets are beautiful birds: white with black wingtips and pale gold around the head and neck.)

(Wikipedia image--I didn't manage to get a good shot.)

Overhead, the gannets circled in numbers so great that the sky was literally darkened by them. They were flying off to find nesting material--we even saw a pair of them fighting over a particularly desirable scrap of netting.

We spent a good long time at the Noup, just watching. (Our guides were kind enough to remind us that, despite the jaw-dropping power of the place, it was probably best for us to keep our mouths closed. Luckily, no one was hit!)

It's hard for me to describe just what made the Noup so awesome. I think it was the complexity and the drama of the place, tucked away only forty minutes out of Lerwick Harbor, a hidden but not-so-secret metropolis where thousands upon thousands of creatures lived out lives so different (and disconnected) from ours. And there are places like this--though not many quite so grand--all around the North Atlantic. It makes the world seem so vast and miraculous.

After we left the Noup, a great skua (a "bonxie" to Shetlanders) chased us in the hopes of nabbing a biscuit. (It would not be disappointed.)

Then we passed under an arch called the Giant's Legs . . .

. . . and moored in a sea cave, where the crew fired up their submersible to give us a look at life under the sea.

It's much more colorful than you'd expect under there--coral, sea anemones, crazy varieties of starfish. You think of the North Sea as a cold, desolate place, but in sheltered areas like this sea cave, life abounds.

We were delayed a bit leaving the sea cave (basically, we lost track of time), but still made it back in plenty of time for our ferry to Aberdeen. I say this because a few potential passengers ditched just before we left port because they were afraid they'd miss their boat back to the Scottish mainland. The crew of the Dunter III guaranteed our connection, so to speak, and even with our delay we got ourselves to the ferry terminal with about an hour to spare.

So the Noup, and the Dunter III? Both musts, both absolutely worth it, both the highlights of our Shetland trip for me!