A couple weeks ago, on April 13th, I flew to Amsterdam for a quick business trip. It was one of those “fly in, have a dinner, spend an afternoon, then fly home” trips… which are kind of crazy when you spend 18 hours in the air for less than 48 hours on the ground.
But I always try to make the most of these opportunities — you never know if you’ll ever get the chance again! So I didn’t spend much time in the hotel room.
It was an overcast morning when we landed, and the hotel didn’t have a room available yet, so I dropped my luggage with the bellman and went out and took a canal ride to at least get a glimpse of the city.
Saw lots of things I would have liked to have had the time to explore, from the Heineken Brewery to Ann Frank’s house… but I did stopp off for a couple hours at the famous Rijksmuseum, to see some classic Dutch paintings, including some original Rembrandts.
By the time I came back outside to finish the canal tour, the sun had come out, so I got a little glimpse of Amsterdam on a sunny day.
Then it was off to a business dinner (ironically, at an Indonesian place – so I didn’t try any Dutch food!) I stopped off after dinner at “Hoppy Days,” a little craft beer bar near the hotel and tried a local IPA – Hop Machine Extraordinary Ale. You have to keep your priorities in place when you’re on the road – hops before bed!
The next morning we rented a car and drove 2.5 hours to the city of Aachen, on the German border, for the main meeting of the visit. After an afternoon of discussions, we got the chance on the way out of town to stop at a 1,200-year-old cathedral built by Charlemagne (and what became his final resting place.)
It was late when we got back, but not too late to stop and buy a wheel of Dutch cheese before the flight home the next morning – my one souvenir of this trip. And after walking through the Red Light District (where the prostitutes really do stand in windows beneath red lights!) I had a nightcap at London Bridge, a British pub before bed. And that… was that!
It was a quick trip, but I still managed to see some things, try some beer and take lots of photos!
Vive La Covenant!!! Today marks the debut of my first novel, COVENANT, in France! Translated by Thomas Bauduret, Covenant was released today by Riviere Blanche Press, under the title LE PACTE DES SUICIDES.
If you are French, speak French, or know somebody that answers “oui” to the question “parlez-vous français?” please check it out here:
On Monday, March 14, 2016, I turned 50 years old. And for the past week, I have been showered with love and gifts from friends and family. It’s left me humble and happy in equal measures. I didn’t need the gifts (which were nevertheless awesome!) but it’s good to know that people care.
I have to be honest… I was not looking forward to turning 50 years old this week. There were moments a month ago when I wondered if I was actually going to make it to the big day. But I have to say, it wasn’t nearly as distressing to me as turning 40 was. I spent 20 years as a newspaper pop music columnist… and as such, I was entrenched in youth culture throughout my 20s and 30s. I also once entertained illusions of finally finding a group of musicians who would help develop the songs I wrote into songs heard on the radio by more than 5 people. So turning 40 was the hard one for me… because that’s when I really had to admit that I was too old to go anywhere in the music industry and I was starting to be visibly older than most of the people who were standing next to me at the concerts I covered for the newspaper.
But I’ve had 10 years to get over that… so this week? I enjoyed celebrating the new milestone, and didn’t get too maudlin about the grey hair that goes with it. Hell, I’m not dead yet, right?
The party started Monday night when I got home to find Geri and Shaun waiting for me with the kitchen decorated in balloons and a banner and a stack of gifts waiting. Geri bought me a gorgeous stainless steel cookware set that I’d been admiring in Sur La Table a few months ago. After saving all of my fiction/book income for six years so that we could rehab our kitchen last fall… now I finally have a great set of pans and pots to cook in it! After I opened their gifts, we went to dinner at J. Alexanders, a restaurant that I have picked for “special occasions” for the past 20 years… they have a moneyback guarantee on their prime rib, and for good reason. Their food is amazing.
At the end of the night, I went downstairs to my home bar and pulled out a bottle of Austral Yagan Dark Ale that I have been saving for a special occasion for the past three years. I packed it in my suitcase and brought it home from a business trip to Santiago, Chile back in early 2013. It seemed like as good an occasion as any to finally close the last chapter on that trip!
A couple nights later, New Order was playing The Chicago Theatre. I’d tried to get tickets on Ticketmaster when they first went on sale… and couldn’t get through their impossible online ordering system to get two seats.
And then after a bad attack in February, I ended up scheduled to have gallbladder surgery just three weeks before my birthday… so for a while I wasn’t even sure that I was going to be recovered enough for the concert anyway… I’d given up on going.
But the Chicago Theatre is one of the best venues in the city, and I’ve wanted to see New Order since I was in college… so… when my recovery went well, and I found that there were still some good re-sale tickets available, on the night before the show, I took the money my dad sent me for my birthday, and bought a ticket on Stubhub (Geri couldn’t go at that point). Best decision I’ve made in a long while. I got a 12th row aisle seat and was nearly in tears when they played “Your Silent Face” early in the show, from their Power, Corruption & Lies LP, a disc that defined college for me.
I posted a YouTube Playlist with a handful of the songs I recorded at the show that night. You can watch them here.
It was an emotional night for me that came at just the right time – reliving the music of college and beyond, while realizing just how far the world (and grey hair) has moved on since the days when I first fell in love with that music. I took some time after the show and sat at the Elephant & Castle across the street from the theater to have some bar food and a beer for dinner. In those moments, I wished that I could press the rewind button, both to watch the concert again, and to go back in time to those days when I still thought I might “be” something. A rock star. A writer for Rolling Stone or Spin. An award-winning novelist… Ok. So I did get somewhere. But I still want to see one of my books adapted on the big screen!
Anyway… it was a good night for contemplation and self reflection.
And you know, the musing on 50 was way easier than the fist-in-the-face that 40 was. It still smarts though. Who wants to be old? Who wants to be beyond their prime? Sure, there are years left (hopefully) and lots of opportunities still. But there are also many that are gone; things that can never be now that the river of days and weeks and years has swept them away. That was driven home during the New Order show when I looked around and saw virtually everyone there was over 40. And Bernard Sumner, the lead singer? Looked like Jedd Clampett without the hat. Jeez. When did we all get so old? When that music first caught us, we were young and vibrant and looking ahead at a world of possibilities. Now we’re paunchy, balding and looking at our 401Ks with trepidation.
Life’s different now.
But it’s not all bad. The up side of being on the second half of life’s pendulum is that you’ve got a lot of experience. And usually more cash (and credit) than when you were 20. I worry about the future… but maybe not as much as I used to. And you know, I can decide to splurge and spend money on scalper’s tickets to New Order. Or go out to eat three times in a week to celebrate my encroaching age! I couldn’t have done that 30 years ago.
On Friday, Geri and Shaun and I picked up the celebration again, and went to Nevins Brewing Company, one of my other favorite places (best burgers ever!) for dinner.
And that was just the prelude to Saturday night, when a couple dozen people took over an exceptionally long table at the Hofbrauhaus in Rosemont, IL to really pull out the stops for my big 50th Birthday Celebration. I’ve been to the Hofbrauhaus in Cincinnati and Las Vegas, and to the original one in Munich (one of the highlights of my life, honestly). It was good to introduce some of my friends to one of my favorite places. And we had a great time.
Early on, someone bought me a shot… which at the Hofbrauhaus means you have to bend over and get a paddle to the ass after downing the liquor. I took my shot and my punishment, and then enjoyed a stein of Dunkel while standing on chairs to toast with the German band.
The table was a cross-section of the relationships of my life; Geri and Shaun were there, of course, my dad and stepbrother and his family were there, and Geri’s dad and sister Jill and their spouses came. My friend Larry, who has been with me since high school was there with his life partner, Lisa… Dave Benton, one of my longtime writing pals from Wisconsin drove down… and my more “recent life” friends from my current neighborhood, Brad Czernik and Chris Brook and their wives came out.
There was much food, and frivolity… and at the end of the night, I decided to give the Stein-holding contest a go. It’s a Hofbrauhaus tradition: A bunch of guys all stand at the front of the band stage and hold out heavy, full mugs of colored water (they wouldn’t waste beer!).
The deal is… if your elbow bends… you’re out. I’d done it once before a year or two ago and placed 3rd. This time around, I reached 3rd again… and at that point was thinking that I wasn’t going to get farther again.
But then the guy to my right gave it up. I suddenly had renewed hope. It was just me and the guy to my left… but he looked rock solid. I could feel my whole arm shaking like crazy, but I did NOT bend. I would not give in… It was a battle of wills that I really didn’t believe I was going to win but…
All of a sudden guy-on-the-left let his arm drop and voila… I was the victor… and winner of a big glass Hofbrauhaus Chicago stein (which is a nice match for my Cincinnati and Munich steins!) Credit it to aged determination over youthful braun.
A perfect end to a perfect evening.
But now the party’s over.
A week of dinners and 5-0 birthday cards and balloons and all the rest have run their course. I wish the balloons said 3-0… but they don’t. I’m a little slower than I was a decade ago. I don’t have the manic energy I had when I crisscrossed the Midwest on book tours back when Covenant and Sacrifice and The 13th came out in mass market paperbacks seven and eight years ago. But… there are still things I want to do. Books I want to write. People I want to spend time with.
So it’s time now to get on with the next decade. I hope I come out the other side of the 50s in better shape than I did the 40s (which I ended with first hernia surgery and then 12 months later, gallbladder surgery!)
One thing’s for sure… no matter what we do while above ground, we’re all going to end up in the same place… below ground. I intend to drink a lot more beer, hear a lot more music and enjoy a few more landmark birthdays before the Reaper comes for me.
Cheers! Or… to stick with the German,
“Zicke zacke, zicke zacke, hoi hoi hoi!”
Fans of the “Creature Feature” movie genre and European horror from the ’70s and ’80s, in particular, are no doubt at least vaguely familiar with the Blind Dead series of films from Spanish director Amando de Ossorio.
I have a huge collection of Euro-horror DVDs and have seen the Blind Dead films referenced for years in various descriptions, comparisons and reviews, but only this month did I finally buy and watch them over the past two weekends. And I got the cool “Coffin Collection” from Blue-Underground to do it… highly recommended! Aside from the four films, it includes a short documentary DVD and a nice 40-page booklet about the films.
The original film, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD introduced the bloodthirsty, cowled skeletal Knights Templar who were blinded and killed centuries ago for their perverse bloody crimes… but now rise to seek the lives of those who stumble upon their abandoned monastery. The first film (watch the original Spanish version, not the shorter English dub!) is a wonderfully slow-building horror film, and the first “rise” of the ghoulish knights from their graves is perfectly shot.
De Ossorio hit upon this film just as horror in Spain (and around the world) was taking off. Paul Naschy and Jess Franco were already brand names in Spain producing independent horror films despite the repressive political regime, and De Ossorio’s creepy knights soon put his name alongside theirs as the Blind Dead became popular worldwide. They were an original creation — not quite zombies, not quite ghouls or vampires or mummies… but with elements of all of those film monsters. They were familiar, yet different… and they sparked a chord. Over the next four years, de Ossorio would shoot three sequels, and all of them are worth seeing for old school horror buffs. While they repeat certain situations (women end up raped or molested and seem to get their heels caught in stairways and rubble while trying to escape a lot), they don’t, thankfully, stay in the same locale and repeat the same film. The skeletal knights of each film appear in markedly different situations, (one assumes these were various separated segments of that original condemned group?) and even the story of how their eyes were blinded changes by the movie. There are no continuing characters besides the knights — it’s as if the director hatched four completely different stories that just all happened to include the same monster.
The first sequel, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD focuses on a rekindled love between a woman about to be married into “privilege” and a wanderer who comes, not quite accidentally, to her town. I loved this setup because for once, the female lead is not some young, beautiful nubile thing with great lungs, but rather, an older, gone-to-seed woman who has some real issues to confront. Not your usual choice for a horror lead.
The love triangle here lends a different focus to the film, which is plotted very differently than the first movie — it drops the “slow build tension” of the original in favor of a constant action format. Here the knights return on the night celebrating the anniversary of their deaths to take revenge on the town. Ultimately, a cast of oddball, at-odds characters are holed up in a church trying to find a way to escape. I loved the ending on this one, which brings back some of the spooky atmosphere factor of the original.
The next sequel, THE GHOST GALLEON, goes in yet another direction. This time around two models are cast adrift on the ocean as part of a publicity stunt, and stumble on a mysterious ghostly ship adrift in fog (where there should be no fog). The girls disappear into the bowels of the ship separately, and then their eventual rescuers spend the second half of the movie trying to dispatch the knights without much success. This film probably has the worst flaws of the four — there’s a segment where a woman is manhandled and tied up to prevent her from going to the police… until the stunt models are returned. Well… why WOULDN’T she go to the police once released, regardless of the return of the models, for the abuse she suffered? And there are a couple of really bad “toy ship” camera shots (imagine those early Godzilla movies with the toy trains crashing). Obviously, the effects budget was minimal. But the ghost galleon is really creepy-looking for most of the film and there is some genuine eeriness.
The final film, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS is probably the darkest one in tone — when a young doctor and his wife arrive to take over a doctor’s practice in a remote ocean-side town, they are not welcomed by the close-mouthed townfolk… who are in the midst of a weeklong ritual to sacrifice their young women to the knights… who come each night to accept their “sacrificial virgin” victims in exchange for not decimating the rest of the town.
If you love slow-building, old-school Euro-horror — which despite the “slow” factor was typically a bit edgier than American productions of the same period (hence, the heavily edited versions of a couple of these films when they were imported) definitely check out the Blind Dead collection if you aren’t familiar already. The coffin set also includes a documentary on Ossorio which is short but enlightening. If you’re a “behind-the-scenes” film buff like I am, it just makes you wish that more attention had been paid to archiving his films and his story before his death in 2001. Check the set out here:
TO CELEBRATE Valentine’s Day weekend, my 10th anniversary collection, Vigilantes of Love, is just 99 cents this weekend on Amazon!
Vigilantes of Love was originally released by Twilight Tales Books in Chicago back in 2003, and the current expanded edition was reissued with an updated cover from Dark Arts Books in 2013. The book contains 21 short fantasy and horror tales and is perfect for Valentine’s Weekend, with fantasy stories that celebrate love and horror stories that warn of the dangers in lust.
One of the stories — a great read for Valentine’s Day — is available as a free read on my web site. You can check out “Hard Heart” here.
Grab a copy of the full book on Amazon here:
Reader Reviews say things like:
“…a mixture of macabre, eerie, fantastical and just plain good…”
“…full of magic. Some of it gentle, some of it dark, but almost all of it lyrical and affecting!”
“…a mixture of macabre, eerie, fantastical and just plain good…”
“…full of magic. Some of it gentle, some of it dark, but almost all of it lyrical and affecting!”
… “Thought provoking… really outstanding stories!”
LAST MONTH, Sinister Grin Press began taking pre-orders for the limited, signed and numbered hardcover edition of my 7th novel, the spider-fest, Violet Eyes. This is a special limited collector’s edition of the book, and will only be available on an order basis, so if you want a copy, sign up for it this week — the order period is almost done — Sinister Grin will stop taking orders on January 31st and the book will be shipped in March.
Reserve your copy of the Violet Eyes hardcover at http://sinistergrinpress.com/
This is the first hardcover release I’ve had since Bad Moon Books unveiled the limited edition of NightWhere in 2013, so I’m looking forward to holding a copy in my hands. I’m actually signing the signature sheets on my desk right now so I can send them back to the publisher this week! (See pix below)
In addition to the novel, the Sinister Grin edition of Violet Eyes will also include the expanded prologue story, Violet Lagoon as an extra. Violet Lagoon was originally intended to serve as the prologue to this book, and was published a couple years ahead of the novel. But it ended up too long to be a prologue, so when I finally wrote the novel, I used pieces of it, but not the whole thing. That original novelette will be included in its entirety in this edition.
Check it out, only at http://sinistergrinpress.com/
This continues the story of my Asia expedition begun in An Asian Expedition Part 1: Seoul, Korea.
A little thing? Sure, but it’s only the 2nd or 3rd time in 30 years of flying that I’ve ever been in one of those cushy cabins! The airline upgraded me (I have no idea why) when I got to the gate, so I had more leg room than I am tall, and a reclining seat that would have served as a bed. If only I’d had that on the previous 13-hour trip from Chicago! Talk about pointless luxury for a 90-minute flight!
It was a little decadent to be served orange juice before the flight took off and to watch how attentive the stewardesses were to the businessmen in the front cabin though (they took the suit jacket of the man next to me and hung it somewhere, returning it to him at the end of the flight. Nice.)
After the short plane ride from Seoul, I made it through customs and a 45-minute cab ride without any problems and checked into my hotel just after lunch. It was a hotel in Shibuya, a restaurant and nightlife district of the city. The hotels near the university where I was working that week had been sold out, so I had decided to stay in a spot in a part of the city that sounded like it would be fun in my off-time.
The lobby and adjoining restaurant looked small but nice. My stomach sank, however, when I opened the door to my room at the Tokyu Rei Hotel.
If I’d had sinful space on the flight over (and in my previous hotel), this was the reverse. The room barely could contain the bed and a wall-length shelf that the small flatscreen TV and a bunch of advertising flyers sat on. There was no closet. The window to the street was covered in a wooden “door” that slid open on a track. I immediately opened that for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic. I’ve been in closets bigger than this room. And the bathroom was even worse… the entire thing, floor to ceiling, was covered in hard plastic (do they just hose it down after each guest?) and the toilet was wedged into a corner. Damn. I’ve been in Motel 6’s that were swankier. After the luxurious InterContinental Coex in Seoul, this was… depressing. Especially since I was going to be there four nights. I texted a picture to Geri and she said “it looks like a prison cell.” That’s exactly what it felt like at that moment.
I didn’t have time to stew on it though, because as soon as I unpacked, it was off to a business meeting and subsequent dinner. When I returned to the room a few hours later, it was night, and I quickly changed clothes and went out to explore nearby Shibuya… and my depression at a crappy room faded.
Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo (it’s listed as a “thing to see” on all the tourist lists), was hopping.
Just a block from my hotel, the city was alive with neon and throngs of people. J-pop music blared from giant TV screens on the buildings, and teens and twentysomethings moved in and out of the nearby Taito Arcade next to the big Bic Camera store. I walked a couple blocks and entered a busy pedestrian street that went from restaurant to bar to restaurant to clothing store.
My faith was restored. I may not have gotten the best hotel room, but this was exactly where I wanted to stay. Shibuya is definitely one of the beating hearts of Tokyo.
Smiling, I followed my phone’s GoogleMaps guide until I reached a British pub I’d heard of, The Aldgate, and walked up the stairs to find myself in a classic British-style pub with British bartenders and Bass Ale on tap, as well as some local brews. My first beer in Tokyo was a London Calling cask IPA from local Sankt Gellen Brewery. I settled in with hops and my laptop to catch up on email and Facebook for a couple hours. And had a plate of British chips with malt vinegar. I’d found a comfort refuge spot for the next couple nights!
The next day was a long one, 12+ hours on the clock, but when it was done… we were done! My business in Asia officially ended Friday night around 7 p.m., but my workmate and I had agreed to pay for a couple extra hotel nights on our own, so we were staying until Monday. We actually had Friday night through Monday lunchtime to explore Tokyo. And over the next 60 hours, we covered as much ground as I think humanly possible.
That weekend I bought some nifty cords and an anime doll of hologram star Hatsune Miku in Electric Town, had a decadent steak dinner and visited a microbrew pub in Roppongi, stopped at the inpsiring Meiji Shrine and grounds, hung out in fashionable Harajuku, ate amazing sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market, snapped photos of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building lookout station in Shinjuku, spent an afternoon around the big Buddhist temple / market area in Asakusa and walked around the grounds of the Imperial Palace (the actual palace was sadly closed). I got to be quite adept at deciphering the Tokyo subway maps and figuring out how to vault from one end of the city to the other using foreign coinage (which was quickly in short supply!).
On Friday night I did some people watching on the crowded streets and had dinner at a small Japanese / Vietnamese restaurant on the second floor of a busy street. It was hard to settle on a restaurant there… many of them are very small, and there were several Korean barbecue places (I’d just come from Korea, and was looking for a more Japanese experience). Plus, many of the restaurants are on the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings, so it’s hard to tell from wandering the street where to go. If I ever go there again, I will do a lot more Internet stalking to choose my restaurants (though the food that night was good.)
After dinner, we tried to stop by the Aldgate, which was packed, so instead we headed down to the Hobgoblin, another British pub in the area. Sadly, they were out of their flagship Hobgoblin Ale! But their Hobgoblin “light” wasn’t too bad.
HARAJUKU / MEIJI JINGU SHRINE
First stop on Saturday, after an egg sandwich and coffee at a Pronto – a chain of cafes there, was the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.
Just a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel, we cut through Harajuku and stopped at the small Togo Shrine there before heading towards Harajuku Station and the large Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine area.
I’ve been curious about Harajuku ever since I heard the Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” song.
So it was a kick to finally walk through the street that day and a subsequent night and see some real live Harajuku girls dressing up in wild costumes and parading about. The morning we walked by, there was a line that stretched down a whole block for a fashion store that was about to open with a big sale. Fashion capital, indeed.
Once past Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine park was thronged with people. We walked around the grounds first which would have been far more impressive if we’d been there in the spring or summer; the area was originally cultivated for a queen, and apparently has flowers everywhere in season. While the trees still had leaves while we were there in January, there were no flowers. Though I did get to kneel and dip my hands in a sacred spring.
The shrine itself was much larger than the one I’d seen in Korea, and had dozens of vendors selling prayer sticks and poems. That was one interesting thing about all of the shrines I visited in Seoul and Tokyo – there were always people selling prayer sticks and satchels that held small prayer scrolls at all of them, no matter how small the venue.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
After visiting the gardens and the shrine, we took the Toei Oedo Line train to Tsukiji and walked around the famous wholesale (and retail) fish market of Tokyo.
There were several blocks of vendors, some selling packaged freeze-dried fish goods, others selling fresh, others selling trinkets and kitchen pottery. And interspersed with those were lots of sushi joints.
I’ve enjoyed sushi for quite a while now, but until Tokyo, I had always been a sushi baby — mainly, I’ve always stuck to some kind of roll – my tiny hunk of raw fish always shielded by a blanket of rice and well-seasoned with soy and wasabi. When we finally stopped for lunch at the fish market, I decided to go ahead and get the “large hunks of fish” style sushi. Hunks of fish that sat on rice, sure, but the rice wasn’t going to hide the taste of that fish like a California roll does.
I worried a bit that each different slab of fish was finally going to hit me with a “fishy” taste, but none of them did. The meat was creamy and rich, some lightly seared which gave it a “grilled” flavor, some not. And we were warned to avoid the soy sauce — the sushi chef had already lightly seasoned various types with soy and/or wasabi… and it was true.
The taste was perfectly balanced. Exquisite! I was instantly converted and before we even left the fish market, I was looking forward to having more!
There was a small shrine at the edge of the fish market which we stopped at briefly before heading to the train for our next destination.
It was late afternoon when we left the fish market, but we figured we could get in one more stop before returning to Shibuya. We decided to head to Akihabara, home of Electric Town, a huge shopping district for video games, electronic equipment (I bought a couple ipod/iphone cords and chargers) and anime and manga merch. I figured the place wasn’t going to pull up the carpets at 5 p.m., and I was right — the streets were full of people.
I spent a lot of time in a store with hundreds of anime-oriented figurines and ultimately bought my Hatsune Miku figure there… not realizing at all that she was the representation of one of the most bizarre music phenoms ever — a music company sampled a woman’s voice and used it in music creation software… which has since led to more than 3,500 songs being created using the voice, as well as spawned a 3D holographic character (Hatsune Miku) who has opened for Lady Gaga, and is currently touring North America!?!
My iPod charging cable was dead, so I found a replacement that also serves as a battery pack, which was pretty cool (never had seen one of those before for an old-school iPod.) And I got a fancy recharging cord there for my iPhone while I was at it.
All along the strip of shops, there was J-pop blaring out into the streets, which added to the energy. Usually with female singers, the music was electronic and catchy, and belatedly, I used my Shazzam iPhone app to figure out the name of one of the bands. I wish I’d done that earlier, because there were some crazy catchy songs playing while we were there.
But thanks to Shazzam, I now have a new favorite act — Silent Siren. And the start of a J-Pop Playlist on YouTube!
I stopped at a few anime and electronics shops, and probably could have stayed there looking at all of the neon and dolls and electronics all night…
But after a day of walking for miles, we decided to catch the train back around 7 p.m. so we could eat dinner in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I was determined not to wander cluelessly looking for food as we had the night before. The concierge gave me a tip on a good restaurant row, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie, a building a couple blocks away, so we stopped in there for dinner and I enjoyed a beef pot and pot stickers with the local Suntory pilsener beer. It hit the spot after a long day!
Way to Play!
One of the cool things I noticed in Japan is that their entertainment centers are on multiple floors. The building across from our hotel had bowling alleys on three floors, plus a couple floors of arcade, a billiard floor and a table tennis floor. Plus Karaoke. It was fun to go up and down the elevator and check out the action on each level!
It was a long day, but I packed a lot of sights into that Saturday! At the end of it all, I stopped back at the Aldgate to refresh my “Western” batteries, and watched a little soccer with a Baird Jack The Ripper IPA.
A View From The Top of Shinjuku
Sunday was slated to be the warmest, sunniest day of my trip through Asia – with temps in the low 50s. So that was the day to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there is a free observation floor. At first, it appeared that we wouldn’t be able to get in to the building — all the visible access doors were locked. But then after circumnavigating the whole building, we found a sign for the observation deck pointing to a stairwell down. After walking through an underground garage area, we arrived at an elevator to the observatory (travel lesson #1: never give up!)
Visibility was a little hazy, but I had a nice coffee and cake while overlooking the city there. And got a distant view of Mount Fuji!
I also found a Studio Ghibli display at the gift shop there, and broke out the credit card for Shaun. We have watched most of the Studio Ghibli movies of Hayao Miyazaki together, and I’d hoped to go to the Ghibli Museum while in Tokyo (unfortunately for me, it was sold out for the weekend).
After the lookout station, we walked across the bridge to Shinjuku Central Park where a martial arts exhibition was going on.
And found yet another shrine — the Kumano Shrine:
Then it was time to hop the train to our next destination — the old town temple district of Asakusa.
Sensō-ji, Buddhist Temple
While it was a little difficult figuring out the subway system given that most of the signs are in a foreign language, we had our only major subway gaffe of the weekend leaving Shinjuku. First I misread Google Maps and walked past the underground subway station… and then managed to get on a train going the opposite direction. But … this time Google Maps clearly demonstrated my error, and after hopping off the train and walking to the other side of the station, we were at last on our way.
The Asakusa area is right near the Sumido River, and is a major shopping area, as well as the home of one of the more famous Buddhist temples, the Sensoji. Out of the entire week, this turned out to be the most crowded place I went. The street that led to the temple was lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, food and other merchandise, and you could barely move right or left to move towards a shop if you wanted to. The street was a solid mass of people.
The area was filled with old architecture and once inside the temple grounds, there was an avenue of street food vendors. I tried what I later found out
(thanks to Loren Rhoads) was a okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake omelette that included flour, shredded cabbage, shrimp and pork belly.
I also had some gyoza – Japanese pot stickers.
There was a ceremony going on inside the temple itself, but I braved the throng and got a quick peek at the entryway. The public was not allowed inside the building itself.
There was a group of kids practicing martial arts near a small shrine nearby, as well as a woman showing off a trained monkey!
And who can resist a trained monkey?
On the way back to the train, I bought another Totoro stuffed animal for Shaun (a Miyazaki character) and posed with a welcoming kitty!
For our last night in Tokyo, we decided to visit another nightclub district. After the craziness of the past 36 hours, things turned out to be a bit slow there on a Sunday night. And after searching for a good restaurant, we ended up deciding to see what the Japanese would do with a “Western” steakhouse. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was definitely the fanciest room and pricetag of any of our meals in Asia… but my lobster bisque and petit filet was definitely good!
After dinner, we walked around the club district a bit, which is filled with Nigerian guys trying to lure men into hostess clubs. It was truly annoying, as they will follow you for over a block, ignoring your increasingly aggravated declarations of “I’m not interested” as they implore you to “just take a look” at their club. After having read about many instances of business men getting a mickey in their drinks and their credit cards charged to the hilt in Roppongi, there was no way I was walking into one even to look.
Instead, I closed the night with a Kanagawa-brewed Brimmer Pale Ale – clean but robust with just the right amount of hop bitterness – at the Two Dogs Taproom, a little microbrew place that obviously caters to Westerners (they had Japanese micros, but also taps from U.S. breweries like Left Hand and signs from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (where, ironically, I just was a couple months ago!) Had to love their tap wall — which was completely “tiled” in pennies!
Last Look: The Imperial Palace
Monday in Japan was a holiday, so I knew the Imperial Palace was going to be closed, but took the subway there anyway, after a coffee and scone across the street from my hotel. I figured there was bound to be something to see.
For awhile… I feared that I was completely mistaken. While there was a flea market going on at the perimeter of the palace, and a marathon filling much of the sidewalk around the place, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is not one of those palaces that you can see for miles.
For one thing, the place is surrounded by a moat… but there are also hills and hedges and stone walls on either side of the moat. The place is completely shielded unless you can actually gain admittance to the inner grounds. So I never actually saw one inch of the palace itself. I did however, get to see the gardens on the outskirts (which would have been more impressive in the spring or summer, I’m sure). And there was the remains of some old guard posts, as well as a small bamboo garden.
After hanging around the Imperial Palace area for a couple hours, it was time to return to Shibuya. I had just enough time for a last dose of sushi before leaving Japan, and I wasn’t about to miss the chance. I stopped at a “sushi go-round” restaurant, where the chef stands in the middle cutting fish and filling plates that go around a track that runs around the bar where the customers sit. Each plate is color coded, based on the cost of the sushi, and you just keep grabbing plates and eating what you want until you’re done… then the waitress totals up the cost of your stack of plates.
I ate my fill, largely of a nicely wasabi-ed whitefish variety!
And then… it was time to go home. While I hated to leave the throngs and sushi of Shibuya behind, I was more than ready. It was an exceptionally long week. I saw a lot of things, but still only scratched the surface. I loved the politeness and manners of the culture — it’s a small thing, but everywhere I paid with a credit card, it was handed back to me with two hands, as if it were a gift offering. People appeared helpful and friendly, if not well-versed in English. And while our hotel room was not what I had hoped for, the staff at the hotel itself were wonderful – going out of their way to help us with our bags, and taxi and restaurants.
I wish we could have gotten out of the city to places like Kyoto or Mount Fuji… or even poked into Tokyo Disneyland, which I passed on the way to the airport. But I was happy I at least got a couple days to bounce around and see all of the things I did. From the Shibuya to the Fish Market to Harajuku to the Akusa Temple… it was all an excellent adventure. And with a direct flight, that 11-hour flight home seemed like a breeze compared to the 18-hour commute that started the trip to Seoul the week before!
Here are a few more pictures from the trip:
I TRAVEL A LOT for my dayjob, but typically just to domestic cities. Over the past few months, however, due to a special circumstance, I had the opportunity to go to four international locations, the most recent being a trip to Asia, visiting Seoul, Korea and flying from there to Tokyo, Japan. Due to the logistics, I didn’t get nearly as much time to explore Seoul as Tokyo, but what I did see, definitely left me hungry to go back.
Because… The food was amazing!
I’ve had Korean food once or twice before, and been to Japanese steakhouses a few times…. but my main go-to for Asian food has always been Thai. That will definitely expand thanks to this trip!
After an 18-hour commute that began on Sunday (13 hours to Tokyo + layover + a couple hour flight to Seoul), I arrived at my hotel in Seoul late at night on Monday, January 4th. The time difference (15 hours) made things weird the whole trip — I would be having a beer at the end of the night while texting with my wife Geri as she was having breakfast.
I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel Coex, which is a beautiful, modern facility in a nice shopping district of the city (it’s attached to a ginormous mall). It also gave me my first experience with electronic bidets, which I saw throughout the rest of my trip. There are a lot of clean butts in Asia, apparently. And given the electronic, heated seats, apparently they are clean warm butts!
When I got up on Tuesday, I was able to walk around a large restaurant area adjacent to the hotel and tour a Buddhist Temple that was right across the street, before heading to work for a few hours.
As I’d feared before the trip, the language barrier did make things difficult now and then. While a lot of things had English subtitles, very few people spoke very much English. That made things difficult looking for food — while the air smelled delicious, I didn’t know what or how to order! I looked at restaurant after restaurant, wondering where I should go in.
I finally settled on a decent looking place that had one line of English on the wall outside, so I figured that was a good sign… but it turned out they still didn’t have an English menu. The waitress and I managed to communicate with a lot of hand gestures, and ultimately she brought me a beef rib soup with side dishes of rice, kimchi, freeze dried salted seaweed, onions in garlic sauce, peppers in some kind of white sauce and another spicy vegetable thing which I never was able to identify (wish I could, cuz I finished the bowl). It was an amazing amalgam of tastes, though slightly embarrassing when the waitress had to show me how to eat it — she brought tongs and a pair of table scissors, and demonstrated how to cut the meat off the soup bones (glad she did, because I would have been at a loss of what to do if she’d just dropped scissors on my table and left!) She also brought me a fork, but I left it on the table with disdain – I ate with chopsticks the entire week.
After lunch I walked around a bit more, and ended up stopping into a German place – Oskar Dine & Brew – for a mild IPA since I’d had tea for lunch. Their menu was bizarre – German Spatzle sat right alongside Mongolian chicken! Looked like a good place for Westerners and Europeans to get a little breath of home… sadly I wasn’t there long enough to come back for a meal.
I walked over to the old Buddhist temple after visiting Oskar’s. It was the first time I’d been in a temple (though I would visit a few more in Tokyo in the coming days). I took my shoes off, as is customary, and knelt on a mat to watch part of a Buddhist prayer service. I love the combination of music and meditation, and wish that I could have stayed for the whole thing. And it probably would have helped if I could have understood a word or two. Here’s what it sounded like:
And here are some pix:
That night, my workmate and I returned to the restaurant district I’d been wandering earlier, and enjoyed a Korean barbecue dinner of beef and pork — cooked over coals at our table. We were totally out of our element… the waitress cooked the first part of our meal, before it occurred to me after looking around that nobody else had “help”… they were all cooking their meat themselves. And moments later, the hostess directed us to do just that (“you move, every little bit” she said and pointed… or something like that!) She also showed us how to garnish and “sandwich” the meat using lettuce leaves (warning to fajita eaters — the key with Korean is small… you have to fit the whole lettuce-wrap in your mouth in one bite — no munching it in half or you’ll have slop in your lap!).
In any case, we got with the program, and enjoyed an amazing meal. The meat and sauce they used on it was phenomenal. And the ever-present kimchi was great too.
The next day was an all-day work deal, with a short break before a group dinner. I took the break opportunity to explore the adjoining Coex Mall, which is touted as the largest underground shopping center in Asia. It was large… kind of like wandering around in the subterranean corridors of an airport. There is even an aquarium tucked in down there (though I didn’t go in). I got a kick out of seeing what was familiar… and not familiar… on the bookstore shelves and “bestseller” tables. Apparently there is no bookstore in the world where Stephen King is not on display.
That night we enjoyed a group dinner at a Korean restaurant in a different area of the city, where they cook all sorts of stuff on a communal table. Soju, a rice/wheat-based alcoholic beverage was poured liberally into glasses of light Korean pilsener (a Korean boilermaker!), as one by one, all of the group were called upon to make toasts. Thankfully, no video record exists of mine.
A video record does exist, however, of the chopping and “flaming” of the pork:
And that… pretty much was that! While I wish I could have explored more of Seoul, we left at 6 a.m. the following morning for Tokyo. And that’s a whole other adventure detailed in An Asian Adventure Part 2, Tokyo, Japan.
Here are a few other photos from my brief stay in Seoul.
Now Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo / Like some cat from Japan / he could lick ’em by smiling / He could leave ’em to hang / Came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan.
— David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust”
David Bowie, dead at 69 from cancer. That was three hours ago now, and I’m writing this 30,000 feet above the ocean, as I listen to ChangesBowie, an album that’s been on my iPod forever. But first, I listened to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the first Bowie album I ever owned. And I’m about to switch over to a live concert of his that I happen to have on the iPod.
Ziggy Stardust was one of those formative, life-changing albums for me. It remains in my Top 100 albums of all time (and ask anyone – I love a lot of albums!) A friend introduced me to it back in freshman year of high school, and I was blown away. I’d heard Bowie on FM radio before that year (1980) but when I sat and listened to that album…. wow. He was edgy. He was pop. He could rock. Bowie could do anything. And over the course of his career… he really did.
I remember renting The Man Who Fell To Earth with that same friend on VHS back in 1980 or 81, and scratching my head and saying wha???? One of these days, I need to watch that movie again. Truth be told, I never became a truly “rabid” Bowie fan — but over the past 30 years I’ve always paid attention to whatever he did. And at this point, I own virtually all of his albums. I actually took my collection of Bowie CDs to a DragonCon a few years ago to use as show-and-tell on a Bowie panel I was on.
Bowie was a chameleon, a man who loved to change. To push the envelope. To try new things. He understood the dangers of complacency. He went from glam to pop when I was in high school, and Let’s Dance is also one of those formative discs for me. During that period he wrote an amazing song for the remake of Cat People, and then turned in a couple great songs as well as a perfect performance as The Goblin King in Labyrinth, one of my favorite movies ever (also starring Jennifer Connelly, right after her lead performance in Argento’s Phenomena.) When I was in college, I had a giant movie poster of him from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence up in my dorm. He didn’t do the music on that one (though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme song to it is one of my favorite movie songs of all time!). I still have that poster tucked away.
His catalog is amazing and while I must admit I couldn’t get into his Tin Machine phase, I love songs from all other phases of his career — my favorites topped with “Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Life on Mars?””Golden Years,” “Sound and Vision,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love,””Fashion,” “TVC 15,” “Changes,” “Under Pressure” and his soundtrack singles like “Absolute Beginners,” “Cat People (Putting Out Fires)” and the Labyrinth tracks “Magic Dance” and “Underground.”
There will be millions of words written about Bowie’s career now. And deservedly so. His Sound and Vision touched the lives and colored the experiences of millions. Few have made the impact on pop music and culture that Bowie did. I’m looking forward to hearing his final album, Blackstar, released just a couple days ago on his 69th birthday. His parting gift to the world.
The Man Has Fallen From Earth… but he left behind a treasure for all of us.
Goodbye David Bowie… and thank you for the music, the acting and the artistry.
EVERY YEAR, I cook a ham at some point between Christmas and New Year’s, and then typically use the ham bone for a New Year’s Bean Soup. I fill most of a big soup kettle, and freeze the resulting soup for lunches for the coming cold months.
It’s typically a fly-by-night affair on ingredients, but this year I kept track when I made it yesterday, and my son Shaun chose to finish his bean soup over his cheeseburger last night… so I know this one turned out good.
Typically, I use all dried beans, but this year I only had one “multi-bean” bag, so I tossed in a can of chili beans to make up for the shortfall. I also usually use Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and chilis instead of tomato sauce… but the pantry had sauce and not Ro-Tel… and hey, cooking’s all about using whatcha got! Here’s how you can make this year’s edition of:
Everson Umpteen Bean Soup
Put the beans in your soup pot to soak. This allows them to expand before cooking. Throw away the “bean soup powder” mix that probably came with your dried multi-bean bag. You’ve got all the flavor you need coming from the peppers and ham.
If I’m really organized, I’ll soak the beans overnight, but you can get away with a couple hours in warm water. (Some people boil them and let sit for an hour to speed the process).
Drain and rinse. Return the beans to the pot and add water — I make sure the water level is a couple inches above the top of the beans. Remember it’s easier to add water than to remove it… but you will be steaming water out all day.
Put the heat on low to start simmering the beans.
Add the cans of chili beans and tomato sauce.
Chop and sauté the peppers, onions and garlic until the onions are turning golden in the butter. Add to the pot.
If you are actually using fresh New Mexican chilis, you’ll need to de-skin them because while New Mexican grown pepper “meat” has a taste like no other, Hatch chili skins are tough. Mine had been frozen (I brought a bag of fresh ones back from Santa Fe in my suitcase last year), so I put them in a frying pan with a little water until they were hot and soft, and then scraped out the inner green chili goodness with a knife. I then added all that mushy green to the pot.
Chop the baby carrots up, add to the pot.
Chop up the cilantro and add to the pot.
Sprinkle with chili powder.
Cook all on low to low-medium heat for about 4 hours, stirring every 15-20 minutes. You want to keep the heat low enough so you don’t scorch the bottom or you’ll ruin the whole batch. It helps to have a good soup pot with a heavy bottom vs. the cheap thin ones they sell at some grocery stores. I used a new heavy pot this year, and the cooking process was soooo much nicer. Nothing scorched or stuck to the bottom.
About an hour before the end of the cooking cycle, I will usually skim off some of the fat and water that is sitting on top after a few minutes of non-stirring. Then I remove the ham bone, and chop off any clinging meat. If your ham bone didn’t have quite enough ham left on it, you can also dice up some more ham from your leftovers and toss that in.
I tend to like my soup spicier than everyone else, so after removing the ham bone and stirring, I will siphon some of the soup into another pot. Once I have two pots going, I’ll chop up a jalapeno or two, plus a serrano and habanero pepper, and add those to the batch that I’m going to be eating. Whatever you do, if you have people sensitive to spicy, do NOT cross the stirring spoons over that next final hour of simmering!
Serve with grated quesadilla cheese or colby jack, and a dollop of sour cream!
Makes… a LOT.