Thursday, July 25, 2013

Yokohama Pub Crawl.

Finding the Yokohama Seasider Magazine at our US library here in Japan gave my husband and I a jackpot source of free information on local beer pubs. Discovering craft brewers in new cities is always an adventure for us and we love it. Yokohama felt like a good place to start because Tokyo's population size and density still seems a bit daunting.

After reading up on Yokohama's craft beer scene we set out this past Saturday on our pub crawl. With much thanks to Google's incredible map app we successful navigated our way through the train system to get there; granted there was only one transfer but we'll take our victories, no matter how small, with pride.

About halfway through the 45 minute trip between Machida and Sakuragicho stations my Ikea radar went up and I said to my husband, “I think the Ikea is around here.” He suggested looking out for the sign but I was sure it would be further from the tracks, out of viewing distance. How I forget that Ikea builds their giant signs loud and proud – a few minutes later, there it was. Ooh, how I look forward to that inevitable shopping experience.

Yokohama (part of it).

Once arriving at Sakuragicho station we walked out into the city of Yokohama and it's beautiful day of sunshine and temperatures slightly cooler than the recent 90 degrees. Perfect beer weather. Between the magazine's easy-to-read map, Google maps, and a friendly Japanese couple we found our way to Yokohama Brewery. We sat downstairs at the small bar, there was an enthusiastic private party occurring upstairs, and ordered sample flights of the available beer. The bartender spoke English pretty well, she had attended Cambridge in England and was now preparing to study aviation at Western Michigan University this fall. Small world – I graduated with my bachelors from Western!

Yokohama Brewery.

We then walked a block down the street to our next stop, Bashamichi Taproom which serves Baird Beer along with American barbecue. Immediately upon entering the dark, lower level bar the incredible scent of smoky BBQ stirs your appetite. A server ushered us upstairs to the restaurant, decorated with old wood floors, country-style tables and chairs, and a wall of windows letting in the afternoon sunlight. We ordered flights with six of their ten available brews. They also serve two beers on hand-pump (or cask, as the term I'm familiar with) but we passed on those, giving us an excuse to return. We couldn't resist the BBQ so we ordered a couple small plates to enjoy with the beer. 

Baird Beer Sampler.

Let me just say, thank goodness I took photos along our way or you wouldn't be reading much more. I didn't drink excessively, but alcohol certainly doesn't help my already poor memory. Nor does it help when faced with the narrow, steep, and uneven staircases in so many older, compact Japanese buildings. One step at a time.

Bashamichi Taproom staircase.

Following our loose-planned itinerary, we walked west up the river to Bay Brewing, a tiny, local bar with seating for fifteen, tops. We found two prime seats right at the bar. They had two beers on tap that day, a brown ale and a stout, and serve only half pints and pints so we ordered a pint of each. One of the bartenders who spoke English told us proudly that he made the stout. Through conversation we learned that he traveled internationally finding craft beers, spending time on the west coast from Vancouver BC, down through California and even Colorado. He said there was too much pale ale there for his liking and is actually planning on spending time in England soon learning to brew in the British style. Thornbridge Brewery is what I wrote in my notes.  We also spoke with a friendly couple sitting next to us, he speaking better English than she, which helped us feel less like outsiders and more like any other person enjoying a quality beer on a summer afternoon. We definitely left there richer for the experience.

Bay Brewing with brewer.

Attack cat.

Down the block, across the street, and on the fifth floor of a quiet building we stopped into Antenna America, an “American Craft Beer Tasting Room”. Tall, chair-less tables filled half the fairly large space. On the opposite wall was a sparse bar with a few beers on tap, nothing local, and the adjacent wall held glass-front coolers filled with an impressive selection of American craft brews. 

Cases outside America Antenna.

We spoke with an employee (owner, manager, I don't remember) from the US asking him about local brew pubs. He mentioned a great little place nearby, he knew the owner, but that we would never find it on our own so he took the time to walk us over there. Thank goodness because he was correct. 

The street with El Nubi.

The quiet street we walked down was lined with small businesses in what almost resembled shipping containers. And by small, I mean tiny. We ducked through the doorway of El Nubichinom and shimmied into a room no bigger than a king-sized bed. My husband stood behind the three people standing at the bar while I found a spot next to the two women standing at the back by the window looking over the river. 

My beer at El Nubichinom.  

I believe there was a server, strange because every person in the place was within reach of the bar. The owner/bartender stood behind the bar with about four feet of space to work. The atmosphere felt relaxed with a subdued, joyous humor, if that even makes sense. The beer was excellent, I had the incredible orange pale ale and hubs fell in love with a saison from Atsugi Brewing (or this link). The owner brings in kegs local craft brews, most are seasonal and very limited, once the keg is empty he serves something different or closes up for the day. We loved the place and made sure to drop a pin on our map so we can find it again because we will find it again.

Kaji at El Nubi also serves unique, beer-friendly cheese!

By this time the sun was beginning to set and we were completely satisfied with our craft beer tour of Yokohama, even though we only explored one part of the city. We found our way back to Antenna America to purchase a few unfamiliar bottles and carried them back to the train station. 

Sunset sky over Yokohama.

I don't remember exactly how the following scene played out, but we got on one train and needed to transfer at the next station. When we exited that train and crossed the platform to board the next one I paused to read the train line on the outside of the car and in doing so the doors closed with my husband on the train and me still on the platform. I remember laughing as the train pulled away, a perfect moment of “not knowing whether to laugh or cry,” so I laughed. There I was, kind of tipsy, going back and forth between Google Maps and the Japanese train schedule. With some quick texting and fingers crossed I got on the next train and when it stopped at the next station, he rejoined me. Fortunately we didn't have to take an unexpected tour of the Yokohama train line that night. 

(These photos were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday, Chardonnay, and Chicken Thighs.

Like the weather, with a certain unpredictability, my taste for wine shifts like seasonal winds. Lately I've really been enjoying Chardonnay, a wine with which I am particularly picky. After trying so many that tasted like fermented pineapples I gave them up, dismissing them as I had shunned Boone's Farm* so many years ago. Then I began dating my husband-to-be, whose preferred wine is Chardonnay, and I began slowly and apprehensively experimenting again. 
During this time I was working as the Coffee Buyer in the Specialty Department at a Whole Foods Market. Included in this department is coffee, tea, high quality chocolate, cheese, beer and wine. Jackpot, I know! The first Chardonnay I successfully enjoyed was from Bonterra, an organic winery, which gave me hope. Occasionally I would try others, simply to keep my wine mind open, but my focus usually fell elsewhere; at the time I preferred heavy reds like Sangiovese and Super Tuscans. 
Years (and years) later, while living in Texas, I discovered an oasis in the middle of my blazing, desolate hell – Spec's Fine Spirits and Specialty Store. The first wine specialist I spoke with there taught me the most important wine fact in relation to my taste preference for Chardonnay: warmer climates produce a more tropical flavor (ex: pineapple) and cooler climates produce less tropical. The other major factor is whether it is aged in oak or not. With more experimentation I learned my preference lies in the cool-climate/ light oak category, which helps tremendously when selecting a Chardonnay.

Since moving to Japan I am still discovering where to find an acceptable wine selection. Spec's spoiled me rotten. Label requirements here are different and are usually in kanji so buying wine holds an unknown risk. As in Texas, sweet wine is common and I wouldn't know what to do if I opened an undrinkable bottle after spending 1000Y/$10 or more. The safest place to buy wine locally unfortunately has the least desirable selection. Everything is labeled for the US market, so on the plus side, I know exactly what I am getting; on the negative side, I know exactly what I am getting. The best Chardonnay, to my liking, this shop carries is Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. Your reaction will surely vary with your wine consumption. 
Why all this talk of Chardonnay, you ask? I wanted some with dinner tonight and hence researched Chardonnay friendly recipes. I found three and made the one whose ingredients I found easily, Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram. I made a few adjustments, of course. 

Update: photo of leftover meal, still incredible.

Being a thrifty-minded person, I was not going to use 2 cups of a $14.95 bottle of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. In fact, I wouldn't even use 2 cups of $8.95 Mirassou Chardonnay. So the 2 cups of dry white wine consisted of 6 oz. Mirassou and 10 oz. of Martini extra dry Vermouth. My husband likes classic martinis but a bottle of Vermouth will not stay fresh for as long as it takes him to finish it. Since it is a drinkable, dry, white wine it is completely acceptable to use in cooking, even more so than any cheap “cooking wine” found in the condiment aisle. 
When making a meal designed to pair with wine I usually pour a glass while cooking and periodically taste it during the stages of preparation. Tonight was no different except the that the wines surprised me. I poured a small glass of each Chardonnay and tested them through the recipe steps. On their own, the Mirassou was thin and bit tropically sweet, the Kendall-Jackson a bit more full with an oaky, fruit roundness. But as I tasted them during the onion sauce preparation, the Mirassou lost it's sweetness while balancing the creamy sauce and the Kendall-Jackson seemed to lose it's oaky edge in the same fight. I've frequently read that you should always cook with a wine you would drink and it seems that using the less expensive wine during cooking (even mixed with an even less expensive Vermouth) increased the desirable taste of the wine when being paired with the completed meal. I even performed a blind taste test with my husband (who is familiar with Kendall-Jackson's Chardonnay and was not present during my wine purchase), asking him which of the unlabeled glasses of wine tasted better with the meal and his conclusion was the same as mine – the less expensive wine tasted better. It goes to show, you never know; Keep an open mind.

Nonetheless, tonight's dinner of Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram was delicious. I impressed myself enough to judge it worthy of a blog post. Preparation was very easy, the longest span of time was the oven baking. Best of all, this recipe lends itself to endless variations of protein source, herb enhancements and filler (vegetable or starch).

This is my version of MarciaKiesel's recipe from Food & Wine Magazine:

Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram

1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
4 chicken thighs
2 cups dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup half & half
1 tablespoons marjoram (dried)
2 tablespoons of flour

Preheat the oven to 425°. Spread the shallots and bay leaf in an appropriately sized baking dish or roasting pan. Arrange the chicken in the pan, skin side up, and pour the wine over the legs. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and bake in the upper third of the oven for about 50 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and the chicken is cooked through. 

Reduce the oven temperature to warm.  Temporarily transfer the chicken legs to a heatproof platter.  Discard the bay leaf. Pour the pan juices (with onions) into a small saucepan.  Put the chicken back into the roasting pan, cover loosely with foil, and return to oven to keep warm.

Bring the onion sauce to a boil over high heat until reduced to a thicker consistency (about 2 cups), about 10 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and stir in the marjoram. Add the half & half and very gently boil until reduced a bit more, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to med-low and add flour, tablespoon at a time, stirring until sauce is thick.

Serve over a bed of fresh spinach leaves or angel hair pasta.

With no photo of the finished product nicely plated, all I have is this photo of the leftovers, not beautiful but it will be just as delicious tomorrow.

These are the wines used in order of price:  Vermouth, Mirassou Chardonnay, Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.

* Disclaimer: Boone's Farm played a significant role during my college years.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shopping and Chopping for Thai Quinoa Salad.

When certain foods are so good I want to jump up and celebrate I, instead, do a little happy dance in my chair. This sometimes happens at a restaurant but more frequently occurs right at home where, now that I think about it, I really could get up and express my delight. Nonetheless, Wednesday's dinner induced the happy chair dance.

Ever since I found the recipe for Thai Quinoa Salad it has been holding a tab on my browser. I even made a separate shopping list for it on my favorite list app so I wouldn't accidentally skip over an ingredient. (Mental note: I should make a folder for lists of my favorite recipe ingredients.)


Tuesday I went back to explore the area around the Sagami-Ono train stop because during my only other prior time there it was raining and we had a limited time frame. This time I dressed to sweat in a white tank top, the heat and humidity here is extraordinary, and sporting my red Levi's backpack and favorite oxfords. The walk to my local train stop is one mile, half a mile to exit my neighborhood and then another half mile to the station; it takes about 15-20 minutes.

I don't mind going out by myself as a foreigner in Japan which is a very safe and respectful environment. I am a minority as a white woman with light eyes and tattoos so when I stop and look around in wonder, fascination and confusion I don't worry about sticking out because I know I already am. Finding a like-minded person to explore with during the week while the spouses work would be nice, but I realisticly don't expect that to happen. So with my Pasmo card charged up I forge ahead solo.

In addition to discovering a fantastic100 yen store in Sagami-Ono Corridor I also found a real supermarket, not an OX. Pretty much every train station I've been to contains an Odakyu OX grocery store because the local train line is owned by Odakyu. The markets are very nice, well-organized and clean but are limited in size and the prices are a bit high, even considering cost-of-living inflation. They also use the same font as Whole Foods Market so I always make that comparison, even though the OX is not all natural and organic products.

At this large supermarket I found almost everything for the Thai Salad, but really I just wanted to walk around and get acquainted. The fresh seafood area was well-stocked with fish for sushi as well as cooking. I picked up two packages of fish marked at 20% off, I presume due to the sell-by date. Meat and fish portions here are significantly smaller than in the US, I should document and write about it in a future post – remind me.

Something I really like about the grocery stores I've seen here are the self-bag stations located just after the checkout stands. If you let the cashier know you wish to bag your own items (at OX stores there is a laminated card you put in your shopping basket to notify them) then after they scan your items from your basket they put them in another basket. You pay, setting your form of payment in a money tray, and then take the basket to a bagging station and bag your items how you like. I love this option! There are small plastic bags on a roll (like produce bags) and adhesive tape to use if needed. Since I walk everywhere with my backpack this self-bag option lets me arrange my load to my liking. It's also wonderful for those of us who have worked retail (especially grocery) and know the best practices for bagging merchandise. Genius! I love Japan.

(I really need a separate post about grocery shopping in Japan.)


Back to tonight's dinner. My main focus was the Thai Salad, even though it was a side dish, due to the extensive preparation, i.e. chopping. I actually got a blister on my right index finger from the borrowed, cheap, un-sharp knife I'm using. (We must get a better knife if I am to continue cooking until my real knives arrive. And a bigger cutting board.) There was a lot of chopping – red cabbage, red bell pepper, red onion, and cilantro. Since I don't have my microplane grater I needed to mince the ginger as well. I bought the carrots and green onion pre-cut.

Following the Thai Salad recipe very closely because all the reviews raved about it, I stirred the sauce into the quinoa and added the vegetables; the combined salad was tasty and crunchy but not saucy enough. I ended up making more of the sauce and next time will probably double it at the start to leave some leftover for another use, maybe a pork marinade. I also held back on the cilantro because my husband isn't crazy about the amounts I usually add. I can't get enough of it though and will add more before I dig into the leftovers.

I had no plan for the fish (swordfish, I think) so I pulled the three small fillets out and sprinkled them with paprika and gomaiso (sesame salt, yum!) and set them aside to reach room temperature until I finished salad assembly. Then I tossed the fish in a fry pan at medium/med.-high heat with a splash of Smart Balance oil and slapped a lid on it to save the steam. After about five minutes I peeked in and the fillets looked cooked through halfway so I flipped them, reduced the heat to med.-low, and put the lid back on while they finished the last 5-10 minutes of cooking/steaming.

When the fish was done I took them out of the pan and covered them with foil to stay warm. Using the same pan with most (but not all) of the oil wiped out I threw in a healthy handful of small spinach leaves and quickly cooked them until just wilted. Since moving here I have done this for every meal I cook in pan because I wasn't eating enough greens during transitional housing and felt it in my body.

Turns out everything was delicious. The salad was crunchy and flavorful of course, but I wasn't expecting the incredible fish. With very little preparation the natural flavors jumped forward and the texture and density were divine. I knew the seafood in Japan would be good but experiencing it is fantastic and I love it.

(This photo was taken with an iPhone and is by no means intended to be a "real" photo, just a snapshot of where I was and what I saw.)

The original recipe here:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Nicely in it's Place.

I love when things fit nicely within a dedicated space.*   There is a calming comfort to opening a cupboard and knowing exactly what is in there and where it is. Generally there is reason behind placement and, if given the chance to explain, it makes logical sense.

Moving and relocating all your possessions, then, causes a great deal of anxiety. This is occurring in stages, spread much, much too far apart. We are living in a 2 ½ bedroom house with ample living space yet our only personal items here are what we took with us on the plane. Yes, we have borrowed furniture and kitchen supplies, and we've purchased small necessities needed for everyday life, but our clothing and small electronics have remained the same. Our “express” shipment of kitchen and bedding items is delayed past it's thirty-day required delivery – it was packed up almost six weeks ago – with no expected time of arrival yet. Our remaining household goods have a delivery estimate of mid September, approximately ten weeks from now. That's seventy changes of underwear away and I'm already bored with the ten I packed.

Anyway, the good part (that I'm trying real hard to focus on) is that I have opportunity between shipments to organize what we have and prepare for the rest. The difficulties are remembering what we chose to bring here and what we left for storage, and then not needlessly spending money on organizing supplies we already own or that we won't end up using. So in the meantime, I get creative.

Today I made junk drawer organizers from empty food boxes. My Grandparents did this, my Mom does it and I carry on the frugal tradition. And it's fun. I originally intended these for my bathroom cupboard because I am aggravated with my personal care items sitting haphazardly on the shelves. Every time I pull my tweezers from the zippered pouch it topples over on it's side and knocks down my deodorant. Every time. Why do they make deodorant containers so top-heavy anyway? Just thinking about the mess makes me want to stop writing and go fix it but I haven't decided on exactly how I want to organize it yet. And also, I saw some great storage containers at Daiso (a 100 yen store, like the Dollar Tree but way better) and I'm trying to convince myself that I can make something better even though I'm not sure I have the supplies in my recycling box.

I used my husband's empty cereal box and an empty stick butter box, but I also have an empty Kashi cereal box too. I'm fishing for something more sturdy for my bathroom items though.  By the way, this junk drawer will not stay this neat.  Once our "junk drawer box" arrives it will be dumped in and haphazardly arranged in a semi-organized fashion, otherwise it wouldn't be junk drawer but a supply drawer.

Another creative storage solution I discovered recently stemmed from not having my food storage containers, like Gladware, that I use constantly. I only bought a package of medium and large after moving because I have so many coming -- eventually. Last week I made a delicious tartar sauce with mayonnaise, smashed capers and red wine vinegar. I used one of our two (borrowed) bowls to make it in and store it but that left us with one bowl to share and, since we both eat cereal in the morning, I needed something else. So the following night when I used half a tofu package it left me with two perfect condiment-sized containers. Of course they don't have sealing lids but plastic wrap works just fine. By the way, the tartar sauce makes a great dip for vegetables.

On the same topic of things fitting nicely in place, I have three photos demonstrating the idea in completely different ways.

First, storage under chairs at restaurants! Hello, America – this is a great idea. I have seen this at a few places here and it's incredibly convenient for purses, bags and umbrellas, all of which people carry here all the time, everywhere.

Second, word puzzles. This is a fill-in which greatly satisfies my need to put things neatly in boxes with nothing left over. It's very enjoyable. 

WARNING: If you don't like spiders then you may want to either prepare yourself or stop now. It's not horribly frightening, like hairy legs or bulbous body, but something interesting I've never seen before.

= = = = = = = = = =

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= = = = = =

= = = =

= =


Last, a spider camouflaging neatly in it's web. I looked at this pretty close until I realized what it was. Then I stepped back, took a photo, and heavily cropped it to get a better look. That's why the photo quality is noticeably worse than an average cell phone photo.

*In my case, this trait, commonly referred to as “being OCD”, stems from my anxiety rather than being a full-blown, diagnosed case of the disorder. Link: NIH: Whatis OCD 

(These photos were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

For the List Makers.

One word: Listomni.

When I began using my iPod Touch about five years ago I was new to the world of Apple and app-using smart devices and downloaded bunches of free apps, deleting many with disappointment. In using numerous to-do or list apps I found myself relying on Listomni most frequently. I seem to recall a free download then upgrading at a small cost but I could be mistaken. Nonetheless, it's a bargain at the current $2.99 through iTunes.

The current version I'm using on my iPhone 5 has fifteen different list types. Most used is certainly the Grocery List. I usually have a few of these in a folder; Right now I have three, Groceries, New House, and Amazon. Within each list you can categorize by store or section and can even assign priorities and prices. And that's just the beginning, it's incredible!

Today I spent a few hours measuring each area in our new rental house and recording it in a Notes List which allows space for longer text. It is also categorized with the ability for subcategories and tags. Now when I'm out and stumble upon something for the house I will have all applicable information with me.

Most exciting, however, is a new feature allowing you to add photos to a list which ends my long, previously fruitless search for a photo album app with the ability to add notes. This means I can finally have a folder of categorized lists for wines and drinks to include photos of the labels – a huge, huge piece of exciting news! This feature is included in a few list types but I am using it with a Simple Tagged List.

Listomni's biggest disappointment (and it's a big one) is it's Apple exclusivity – it's not available on Android devices. I miss my Android phone daily, but my Japanese mobile company doesn't allow returns so I am learning iPhone's strengths. Maybe if contact Ontomni daily with the suggestion they'll have a version complete when I return to the US and to Android.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Laptop Resuscitation

Laptop Update: It works!

Yesterday evening, my husband (and in-house tech support) successfully connected my laptop computer to the television which aided recovery in two ways: First, it proved the problem was only with the video card or computer screen which meant that, second, my files could be transferred to my back-up external drive. Once the files were safe he turned the computer off and performed a final attempt of resuscitation by physically disconnecting then reconnecting whatever connects the screen to the computer. He then put it back together, turned it on, and voila! The screen works!

This computer is pretty old in the laptop world, about five years, and its age shows – some keys are crooked, the touch mouse is wearing through, the wireless internet card doesn't work and it takes about 15 minutes to boot when powering up. But it works, for the most part, and I don't want to replace it unless absolutely necessary. This tech scare was a clear warning that perhaps we should begin watching the sales for a great bargain on a good laptop so we don't have to wait until it crashes for good and spend more money than necessary replacing it. Once we receive our household goods shipment though I will have my nice desktop computer back which will make the laptop's demise less painful (as long as I continue to back up the files).

Second in line after my laptop is my Kindle Fire, that I love so much, which replaces my laptop while traveling. More than just an e-reader, it uses wi-fi for internet connection, which is available when I visit family and at almost every hotel, allowing me to check my email and web-surf freely. Also, I can use it as an mp3 player for music purchased through Amazon, which is where I get most of my music recently. This leads to my creative endeavor of the day.

Since we were under a weight restriction for the household goods we could bring here we have access to furniture we can use until our own arrives, or longer if needed. Knowing this in advance we opted to leave some of ours in storage back in the states. Fortunately the borrowed items are in good shape and are in a darker wood.  I like to line drawers to protect my clothing from snags, splinters and whatever else the wood holds. I usually use brown paper bags and cut them to fit but I have not accumulated any yet, therefore I found a sales circular and a couple magazines that had smear-proof ink, pulled out the binding staples and flattened the sheets. The pages fit quite well so I just stuck them together with little pieces of tape to prevent them from shifting. Then, finally, I emptied my suitcases, put my clothes away and stored the luggage in one of the many closets we have.

While working on this project, I propped my Kindle up and used it to play music. The speaker quality isn't the greatest for projecting but with tile floors and bare walls the sound bounced around sufficiently enough. I do miss my awesome iPod dock though which should be arriving soon with our small express shipment of belongings. Fingers crossed.

(These photos were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Laptop Down.

We moved into our new rental house yesterday and as I began to write about it my laptop computer fritzed out. My husbands said it may just be the display or the video card but we have get a particular cable to find out. He already has one but it's in transit so we must buy one. I'm typing this on my Kindle Fire which is difficult, trying to edit the text is aggravating so this will be short. Please keep my laptop in your thoughts and hope for a speedy recovery.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Finding and Not Finding.

Before moving to Japan I understood that availability of certain items would be limited.  In preparation I purchased one or two extras of products I use regularly and consider important in daily life, for example my multi-vitamins, favorite skin cream and lotion.  Knowing that my Amazon Prime membership works here helped me avoid a hoarding situation. 

In the confusion of sorting my belongings for different packing shipments I somehow packed all my hair styling products except for four almost empty tubs of various types.  Yes, my very short hair still needs styling especially because it grows straight out from my head.  Only the closest among me have seen me first thing in the morning with a head of fuzzy hair sticking out every which way.  (A brother and nephew have the exact same hair, so they understand.)  To make due, I mixed the remaining products together, a combination of stuff like pomade, texturizer, paste and putty.  The solution seemed creative and worked well enough with my freshly cut hair.

As my hair grows I use different styling products, moving from shiny pomades and waxes to more matte pastes and putties, so I went to the local Post Exchange (like Target) to pick some up.  Unfortunately, this location is quite small with a very limited selection of pretty much everything.  I walked up and down the beauty and health care isles countless times, scanning the shelves from top to bottom, checking every end cap and possible remote location with no luck.  There is absolutely no hair styling product for short hair, only the basic hairspray, mouse, gel and a few things for shine, curls or moisturizing.  For the first time since arriving I almost cried in dismay.

So I began the simple hair styling routine of pressing it down flat with water after waking up in the morning; after showering at night it's especially disheveled.  I do not like how it looks, but the longer it grows the less fuzzy it is and finding a good beautician who cuts short female hair well will take some time.  In another two weeks it will certainly need some work though.

Last Sunday we took the train to Ebina to check it out.  Soon after stepping out of the train station I spotted a large, purple Aeon sign and immediately headed towards it.  Aeon is a discount store like Wal-mart with food, clothes, home goods, et cetera and, like most shopping areas on Sunday, it was packed with shoppers.  When we came to the beauty section I walked through the isles finding hair styling products by container shape because, of course, all the packaging was in kanji (Japanese writing characters).  With a huge sigh of relief, I eventually found a shelf with little tubs that looked like the type of product I use.  Some even had testers.  I didn't buy any at that time for a few reasons: I didn't want to carry it around all day, I didn't want to part with any yen, and there were to way many people in the store to spend any extra time to actually shop.  I know where it is and I will return on a more quiet weekday afternoon.

We then explored Vina Walk, a large, three-story open-air shopping mall just outside the train station.  It, too, was packed with people like an American mall the Saturday before Christmas.  It was there that we found OIOI, a large department store.  The lower level of the store sells food and grocery items and is incredible, the best we've found in our three weeks here.  While walking the perimeter isle we discovered the liquor store with a small station set up with wine samples.  Working through the obvious language barrier with lots of smiles and arigato's (thank you's) I found a simple red blend that sang like angels on my palette.  After the horrible selection of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Beringer and such at our local shop this was beautiful!  The selection, though not large, was definitely one of quality and variety.  For the first time since arriving I almost cried in rejoice.


(The photos shown below were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)

This is the liquor store I just mentioned on the bottom floor of OIOI in Ebina.  It was too busy to get a photo without people in it.  To the right of the frame was the wine tasting, to the left was a refrigerated section and behind was a beer cooler with a nice assortment of local brews.

Looking through the Vina Walk, over the train station, toward the mountain foothills:

I recently fell in love with Yamazaki's Long Roll Cake.  The cake is similar to a yellow angel food cake but slightly more dense.  The filling is smooth and creamy without excess sweetness and I believe it is a real dairy cream because it is refrigerated.  Heaven for about $1.50 and definitely big enough for multiple (reasonable) portions.  It's probably better that I cannot interpret the ingredients or nutritional information.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Modern Photographer's Dilemma.

A debate many photographers hold within themselves and with others is To Post-Process or Not To Post-Process. Or How Much Is Too Much? This is especially true of those who began their photographic adventure using film and of those who find comfort in defining and clarifying subjects for sake of better understanding. I fall into both these categories and have discussed it with many. There is no correct answer nor any superior opinion and though this topic is raised regularly (some may refer to the beating of a dead horse) it is always relevant. Recent events have brought it to my forefront again.

One month ago all my possessions were packed up for a move from the United States to Japan with the exclusion of what I could fit in two suitcases and a carry-on bag. My custom-built-for-photography desktop computer did not make the luggage cut and hence is months from arriving. My basic camera equipment, my back-up external drive and my old laptop computer fit into a backpack and never left my side.

After a trip to a local castle last week I anticipated problems with my laptop while working with the photos. First, dumping the RAW files from my SD card onto the hard drive would quickly fill up what little space remains, therefore I copied them to a thumb drive until I can move them to my back-up. Second, the computer's screen is horrible; even after calibrating it with Huey's Pantone package the color is disturbingly inaccurate. Last, my old processing software files have corrupted rendering it unusable, and, of course, the software disc is somewhere between Tokyo and Texas. Fortunately, my shots SOOC (straight out of the camera) were crisp enough to hold their own because all I could do was use the basic built-in Microsoft photo tool to resize. For me, posting a photo unprocessed feels like I'm leaving the house without clothes, and I mentioned that caveat online in my comment, unknowingly sparking the classic debate.

I first struggled with the pro/con post-processing (PP) issue the year I began using a digital SLR. I realized that so much of the amazing photography I admired used more PP than I thought. Although I felt disillusioned I also better understood why my newbie photos SOOC didn't look anything like I wanted them to. Just as I had taught myself to use an old, film Minolta SLR twenty years ago, I read books and practiced tutorials to learn and understand what my starter Canon DSLR could deliver. Then I slowly introduced simple PP techniques. I discovered how much software could significantly alter an image and began questioning it's effects on a photograph's integrity.

I discussed these concerns with my modern-renaissance-man of a brother who is a photographer as well. Most of his final images are SOOC; he even changes his camera's picture setting to monochrome when he wants to shoot black and white. According to another family member he and I share very similar thought processes and reasoning techniques, though I didn't (and don't) utilize them as academically as he. The details of our conversation escape me but we basically concluded that a photograph is art and art doesn't have a rigid definition.

Whether or not you alter a photograph you are sharing an image from your point of view. Sometimes when I spot something visually appealing my mind sees it differently than my eye and in order to share my version of it I must alter it with PP; or I may have a creative concept in mind that can only be achieved though PP; or maybe I simply want to clean my skin and clone away my spots; and sometimes I don't do anything but resize it.

I wouldn't call myself a heavy PP user because, frankly, I am not fluent with the software. I began with Corel's Paint Shop Pro for small adjustments with contrast, white balance, noise reduction and the like. When I finally began shooting RAW I started using Adobe's Lightroom (LR) and discovered a huge learning curve which I still haven't overcome. I have no idea how to use most of the features yet, including the oft-discussed layering. I love working with RAW files in LR and find myself using less noticeable PP because you can make such small adjustments. Some photos I work on more, some less, it depends on how I saw the original image and whether the intended mood is conveyed.

I don't fall back on the “I'll just fix it later” mindset. I try my best to record the desired image in-camera using my skills and gear at hand.  But sometimes you get home and realize the image you saw on the camera's tiny viewing screen does not look the same on your full size computer screen. I feel no guilt or shame in using software to adjust it until it meets my satisfaction. It's my art and I'll present it such.

To the question, “At what point does it stop being photography and start becoming digital art?” I respond, as soon as you press the shutter release on a digital camera it is digital art. What you choose to do with it (or not do with it) is part of your creative process and for that there are no rules.


Here are some examples of how I use PP.  
(I am unable to access the unaltered, original images at this time.  Once I can, I will add them for comparison's sake.)

My most recent example of straight out of the camera, I only resized for posting.


By the Rattlesnake Inn.
After driving past and admiring these lamp posts for a year I finally brought my camera to capture the essence of central Texas as I see it.  Being Texas in July, the sky was bright.  In order to properly expose the subject of the scene (the lamp posts, buildings and terrain) the sky was completely blown out.  To balance the sky with the earth I brought the exposure down for the sky and upped the contrast.  When converting it to monochrome I played around with the filters until the the desired colors were accented.

This Foggy Morning photo was taken the very first time I took my first DSLR outside for a shoot, I think I'd had it a week only.  Needless to say my PP knowledge was practically non-existent.  Most of the curbs in this parking lot were painted bright yellow and detracted from the beautiful, blossoming trees, so in PP I used a tool and carefully desaturated the color on every, single one. And that's it.

My self portraits are usually experimentations of a concept I'm playing around with.  This one did not unfold as I planned, allowing me to play around with another technique that I'd been pondering.  Without my access to LR I can't say exactly what I did to this one, but I certainly did a lot,  The allover exposure was brought up as well as the contrast with a slight black increase.  I cleaned up my skin and my eye whites, then I pulled the down the red saturation and a bit of yellow.  I really like the results but it certainly received mixed critiques.

Finally, the most processed image I have ever done.  I have no idea exactly how I did it.  I think it involved posterizing, contrast and color, but beyond that I have no clue.  It took forever and I would love to know an easier way.  The concept came from the funny cartoon post cards people share online.