Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bonus Tsukiji photos

Exactly one year ago today I emerged groggily from the Oedo line Tsukiji-shijo station at some unearthly hour of the morning in order to visit one of Tokyo's most popular, but unusual, tourist attractions - the jaw-dropping Tsukiji fish market. The city has at least ten wholesale markets that sell meat, fish, vegetables, flowers and fruit - but the most famous is the fish section of the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. Almost 3000 tons of seafood are sold there everyday, in only five hours of trading, generating £15m. That's per day.

This is what most of it looks like - narrow passageways through countless white polystyrene boxes. The site as a whole is vast - the world's largest fish market is surprisingly hard to find. We ended up walking through a large bustling truck depot, then past fruit and veg stalls, before a narrow row of sushi restaurants told us we were getting closer. At 8am a lot of the stalls were already closing. Here you can follow 24hrs at Tsukiji, and we got there just as the 'jobbers' were loading the white boxes into the vans to whizz around the city, and beyond.

Some 450 kinds of fish are received, and other things besides. The Official Tsukiji website has a cover page with a typical beast on display for sale - things like that (a scary-looking crab) were everywhere. I had trouble recognising half of it, even with my degree in Marine Biology. From tiny thumbnail size translucent fry to gigantic tuna (see below), and everything in between. Some of it did make me uneasy though, especially the obvious deep-sea species - nobody knows population sizes, yet the Japanese are hoovering them up.

Octopus in a bargain bin. For biological reasons that I won't go into here, a lot of animals that live in deeper water are bright red. Combined with the blood on display, it wasn't for the faint hearted - or faint stomached. But it was fascinating, as the market is open to all, so large bulk buyers were there, as well as elderly Tokyo wives with their shopping baskets. We tried hard to take everything in, and yet not get in people's way - but nobody minded us being there. The men at the back of each stall were happy to pause for the camera as they hacked up something unfortunate for the boxes being scoured by the customers.

Tuna heads on display. Compare the size of these with the man standing directly behind. Sadly the highlight of the market - the 5am tuna auction - is now off-limits to tourists after they (and their flashbulbs) kept getting in the way. These things go for thousands of dollars each, so it's a very serious business. The auction is conducted by a group of eager buyers standing around each fish, which has had a core of the tail taken and laid out for all to see. The most expensive cuts are the belly, where the natural fat gives the raw tuna more of a silky texture compared with your average seared tuna steak.

Again, not for the squeamish. But it was an eye-opener to us supermarket shopping Westerners, seeing it all there. You don't see men wrestling to cut the heads off live eels behind the fish counter at Asda. Of course, you need to get up early to see it - by 9am everyone's pretty much going home. The Tsukiji workers must watch a lot of Japanese daytime television. But it's a unique thing to see - it's frantically busy, and yet everything works really smoothly. There are all kinds of creatures on display, and they are all for sale - if you fancy a few of these or a bagfull of these, then off you go. But before you leave, go back to the row of sushi restaurants and get some sushi for breakfast. It will be the best you will ever taste (and I've tasted a lot...)

The DUaB Guide to...golfing


Time for another longwinded bout of pontification about something inane - or as I call it, a DUaB Guide. After coming together as a continent to thoroughly smash the Americans in the Ryder Cup - what better time for the DUaB Guide to golfing!

- If you're standing near someone playing a shot, and you hear the sudden clunk of ball against tree, don't turn towards it unless you've got very good reactions.

- Make as many lewd comments regarding golf as possible - nobody ever gets bored of hearing them. Refer to 'cleaning balls', 'sinking a long one', 'slicing one into the pond'.

- When playing in snake/spider/crocodile/dingo/shark/koala infested countryside, don't look for your ball for too long if it sails into the thick rough - especially if you are a) wearing shorts, and b) a hapless English tourist.

- If your playing partner puts his ball on the tee and it falls off, say "That counts as one" while reaching for the scorecard. This also never gets boring.

- The signs always say 'Please replace your divots', but never specify with what. Custard, glue, urine - it's your chance to be creative.

- Golfing is an excuse to get away with wearing outfits that normally would cause people to throw things at you in the street. Like this plus fours/cowboy hat combo sported by former US President Warren G Harding. Golf Digest magazine has a dedicated 'Mr Style' on hand to answer pressing questions about golfwear - his advice? "Don't over-think it. If you're standing in front of the mirror for more than 10 seconds, you need to go [and] change." However, for us more sartorial hackers, there's 18Golf, golf gear for the 'Golf Punk Generation'.

- If driving a golf buggy, don't get in and press the pedal flat before you turn the steering wheel - as your playing partner might have left the wheel turned hard left, causing you to suddenly shoot off to one side and almost roll over. Eh, Paul?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Night on the town

After the baseball game I got the Metro back from RFK and had a wander about some of the Mall's sights lit up at night. The relentless heatwave that had gripped the East Coast had subsided a little, but it was still muggy and sticky, even that late. The sites on the Mall were all still busy, plenty of tourists wandering about looking at the monuments and buildings. Each one had a compliment of bored-looking security guards, most of whom were sitting in un-airconditioned huts listening to loud sports radio programmes. I walked past the State Department and one of the gun-toting guards nodded at me in greeting before flinching as a rat scampered across the pavement. "Man, there'all kind of rats in them bushes," he said. "Dang things."

The Lincoln Memorial glowing in the dark, more peaceful without the droning aeroplanes overhead. There are 36 Doric columns on the outside, representing the number of States in the Union at the time of his death. John Wilkes Booth had originally planned to kidnap the President in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners, but an anti-slavery speech Lincoln gave in early April 1865 enraged him so much he decided assassinate him instead. On April 14th, Ford's Theatre was showing a production of 'Our American Cousin' when Booth crept up behind Lincoln and shot him in the back of the head at point blank range. In a US TV poll in 2005, Lincoln was voted the second Greatest American in history, behind Ronald Reagan.

Ghostlike statue making up the Korean War Memorial, to the 1.5 million American men and women who served in what has become known as the 'Forgotten War', due to the prominance of WWII and the Vietnam conflict. Lasting slightly over three years at the start of the 1950's, the war arose from the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945 before the official surrender of the occupying Japanese. The Soviet Union invaded from the North, halting at the 38th Parallel where the Americans had advanced from the South. Both Allied forces wanted the Japanese to surrender to them, so they ended up signing two peace deals for each half of the now divided country. Each 'liberating' force installed a Government sympathetic to their ideals. Both then left in 1949, leaving the peninsula locked in two fiercely opposing camps.

A girl takes her photo with Abe sitting on his marble throne. Undoubtedly his early death made Lincoln a martyr for the anti-slavery cause, and to future generations who despise the idea of forced labour his visions have made him a legendary figure. His birthplace and family home are historic memorials, as are New Salem (a reconstruction of the town where he lived as a youngster), and Ford's Theatre and the house over the road where he eventually died. He has many cities and counties named after him in America, as well as the Lincoln Automobile. He is represented on the $5 bill, one cent coin, and of course has his angular face chiselled into the side of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

This is the view in the other direction, with people sitting on the Memorial steps looking out towards the Washington Monument reflected in the long slender pool of the Mall. The reflection is chopped off at the bottom because of the low wall that runs around the roundabout isolating Lincoln's temple. The small ring of lights at the base is the WWII Monument, midway between the two. Although it all looks close together, the memorials to the two greatest American presidents (if you ignore Reagan - who has a nearby airport named after him) are almst 2km apart.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Very old York

Hah! Take that ancient Briton! Us fearless Romans are one of the most formidable fighting machines in history! Cower from this well-drilled legionnaire as he skillfully swings his short sword. No, it isn't made of plastic. Chemically modified natural polymers won't be formed into rudimentary plastics until the nineteenth century! See we are an educated army also! And Caesar recently signed a sponsorship deal with the yet-to-be-invented clothing manufacturer Puma, yes. Have at thee, smartarse! Begone, lest I set my Gladiator brother on you!

This is where I've been all weekend, staying in one of these converted warehouses on the banks of the River Ouse in York. As you can see from the archive photo above this one, the city was founded by the ninth legion of the Roman Army in AD 71 and named 'Eboracum' - place of the yew trees. It grew to such a size, that in AD 237 it was proclaimed a 'Colonia', the equivalent to a city. In the 5th Century the Romans left Britain, as their vast empire was crumbling, and the region was conquered by the Anglian King Edwin. He renamed the city Eorforwic, as it seems he suffered from some kind of speech impediment.

The River Ouse on a misty morning. Contrary to the name, Ouze is a derivative of an early Saxon word meaning 'clear'. York sits on the confluence of two rivers, the Foss being the smaller of the two. This often means trouble, and the city frequently floods. In 2000, the river level rose 17ft higher than normal (the highest for over 350yrs), and this view was under water up to the tops of the first floor windows. But these pubs always clean up and re-open, it obviously comes with the territory.

There's history everywhere you turn in York, and it is one of the few walled cities left in the UK. Circling for about three miles, they are largely intact - albeit run down in a few places. The only major section without walls was in olden times defended by a large swampy bog called the 'King's Fishpond', that coupled the deterrent of a large stretch of water with the added obstacle of rotting carcasses the defenders dropped in. These days, the water has long since been drained, and if you do a full circuit of the walls you have to walk along a main road by Allied Carpets and a Majestic Wine warehouse, until you rejoin the ancient battlements and continue.

King Edwin was baptised in a small wooden structure near the centre of Eorforwic in AD 627. Almost 100 years later, York became an Archbishopric, and the first ever Archbishop of York was the delightfully named Ecgbert. However, the Normans destroyed early York and William installed Thomas of Bayeux as his Ab of Y. He started on a more substantial building, but it wasn't until 1220 that the 'modern' cathedral was begun. It took a staggering 250yrs to build, and was consecrated on the 3rd of July 1472, as builders were still sticking bits of battlement together. Today, much of it is restored (a massive fire razed a lot of it in 1984). But original features do remain, like the large East window (lower right of this pic)- at 76ft high and dating from the late 15th Century it's the largest example of medieval stained glass in the world. It was created before Columbus set off on his voyage to the New World.

Someone call for a Gladiator?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Where Stats come alive

Visit sunny Baker Island! is my kind of website. You can potentially spend hours - many hours if you're at work - looking at the wonderful nuggets of information contained within. There's serious newsworthy stuff like the latest info on Bird Flu - I'm sure you didn't know that Zimbabwe has recorded two cases in Ostriches - and the current FIFA football rankings - Brazil being first; American Samoa 198th and last. There are ten countries with a 'Global Terrorism Indicator' of 5 - meaning over 1000 deaths from terrorism in that country. Sri Lanka, Algeria, Burundi, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Sudan, Rwanda, Liberia and the DR Congo. There's no Iraq there because the data come from the year 2002. The UK has an indicator of 2 - meaning between 20 and 100 deaths from terrorism.

It's a useful tool for students, or those interested in history or current affairs. There are articles - like this one, about the role of each country affected by World War II, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. For example, Haiti declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbour was attacked, but could only offer food aid to Allied soldiers. Other sobering topics on Nationmaster include numbers of people killed on 9/11, listed by country (after the United States, the UK lost the most number of people in the attacks, with 67), and the numbers of endangered species for each nation. The top three are the US (854), Australia (483), and Indonesia (340). The UK has 17 endangered species, with Iceland at the bottom of the table, with just 1.

But it's not all doom and gloom - the website also has country profiles from all kinds of places you never knew existed. What about a holiday on Baker Island? Sounds as if it could be a delightful Nantucket-style New England resort - but the potential holidaymakers who check Nationmaster would find that it's really an ex-guano mine midway between Hawaii and Australia, which was abandoned as uninhabitable in 1935. It's entry under 'Climate' reads "...scant rainfall, constant wind, burning sun". Send us a postcard!

Other interesting things you never knew about include Ireland leading the world in beer consumption (although you could probably have guessed at that one). What about the wettest country in the world? The UK? Hoho, no that would be ranked 48th. If you said Guinea at 3,784mm as a mean of the years 1931-1960 then you clearly cheated. Go and sit in the corner and think about what you did. The rest of us are going to continue with the nation who are least proud of their country - the Japanese, at 36%. They make up for it by having the highest rate of fax machine ownership, at 93/1000 people. Maybe they send eachother faxes about how ashamed they are. Japan only comes 5th in the much sought-after TV ownership per capita category, falling a long way behind Bermuda, with 1009 TV's for every 1000 people. But who gets the remote?

In fact, there are so many things that the Nationmaster people think you need to know they have helpfully set up lists of 'Factoids'. As I'm sure you're aware by now, I'm a sucker for a good factoid. So here are a few to keep you going...

- The average person in the UK drinks as much tea as 23 Italians Link
- Antarctica is 98% ice, 2% 'barren rock'
- Nauru, Tokelau and Western Sahara are the only three countries not to have an official capital city
- Mexican women spend 15.3% of their lives in ill health
- In 2002, every 1000 Swedes made a bus. Link
- In Switzerland, the average person has to work for 102 minutes to buy a kilogram of beef Link
- 62% of Bulgarians describe themselves as 'not very happy' Link
- Malaysia has the lowest rate of cinema attendance in the world. Link
- Thimpu, Bhutan is the only world capital without traffic lights.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Take me out...

After trying and failing to get tickets for the Red Sox game on my birthday, I was determined to get to a baseball game when I travelled down to DC. The Washington Nationals play at RFK Stadium - one of the great old American sports arenas. I went there pretty much as soon as I arrived in the city, in case they sold out too - but the look of surprise on the ticket woman's face I understood when I turned up to the game. The Tuesday night match against the Florida Marlins obviously isn't a big draw. I asked a steward if the Nationals were any good. "Oh no," he said. "Not at all."

I had a tremendous seat - tickets to baseball games are really cheap, I suppose because they play so often. So I spent about the same as a Premiership ticket would cost at the Rovers, and ended up with a brilliant view. An elderly African American man even showed me to my seat and wiped it down with a towel for me. Unfortunately I forgot to tip him, and felt bad about it for ages. Anyway, on the field this is the DC Area Gay Men's Chorus, who sang the National Anthem. They got the biggest cheer of the night.

From what I could gather, the Nationals have one star player, the Dominican Alfonso Soriano. Here he casually tosses a ball about forty yards with a perfectly flat trajectory. The sparse crowd cheered every time he touched the ball, and young kids queued up at the side of the grass to hopefully get his autograph. He ignored most of them as he was too far away, but every time he caught a ball he jogged over and flipped it into the crowd, causing pandemonium as people scrambled to try and catch it.

The first pitch of the game, and Soriano (who opens the batting for Washington) is hit in the small of the back by the Marlins pitcher Ricky Nolasco (you can just see the ball striking the batter as he turns away from it). That means the aggrieved player gets a free walk to first base. I kind of know the basics of baseball, so I more or less knew what was going on, although some of the more complex stuff went above my head. But I was sitting there on a pleasantly warm August night with a few beers, so it was all good.

Smoke drifts across the stadium after Washington's Nick Johnson hit a Home Run to pull the Nationals back to 3-2 down. A crowd of just under 25,000 sat through what the home coach later called an 'awful' game - but I enjoyed it. Washington made several bad mistakes, throwing balls over each other's heads, that kind of thing. In fact, it got so bad it was quite amusing (I've sat through many a Blackburn game like that over the years). At one point someone in my row stood up and bellowed "YOU SUCK!!!" at the home players, who eventually wound up losing 4-2. As of today they are W61-L82, on a four game losing streak, and still sucking, it would seem.

So all in all, it was a good night out. It wasn't my first baseball game, as I seem to remember attending a match between Scotland and Ireland in Edinburgh a few years ago. This was slightly different of course, and the poor game didn't take anything away from taking part in a very typical American ritual. I got myself a tshirt, had some beers, and managed to follow what was going on - I'm not sure I'd go back to the Nationals, but if anyone wants to buy me some Red Sox tickets, I wouldn't say no... ;)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A slow news day?

Kill your speed, not a goat

So apparently not too much happened in the UK today - the governing Labour party seems to be in meltdown, the various wars we're involved with are causing untold death and destruction, global warming threatens the fabric of our....ahh never mind. You can always find something interesting on the news, particularly if you scan the BBC website for those little gems others may have missed. Being the valuable news portal that I am, here are the important stories of the day, brought fresh to you with my pleasure.

1. "Goat-free roads made me speed"

A Swiss man caught speeding on a Canadian highway has blamed his actions on the absence of goats on the roads. The man was caught driving at 161 km/h (100mph) in a 100 km/h (60mph) zone. A traffic officer's notes said the Swiss driver had said he was taking advantage "of the ability to go faster without risking hitting a goat". Canadian police spokesman Joel Doiron said he had never found a goat on the highways of eastern Ontario in his 20 years of service. "Nobody's ever used the lack of goats here as an excuse for speeding," Mr Doiron told the AFP news agency. "I've never been to Switzerland, but I guess there must be a lot of goats there," he said. Link

2. "Football fan's colour diet"

A football fan told how he has taken his love for his team to the limit by vowing to only eat food in his club's colours for the whole of the season. Celtic supporter Scott Campbell, 20, has taken up a challenge from his housemates to only eat green or white foods for the 2006/07 season. The Edinburgh University student has been living on a diet of salad, vegetables and white meat. He said he was confident he would complete the 10 month challenge. Mr Campbell, originally from Glasgow, said: "Like all these things, it started on a drunken night out when one of the guys I was living with dared me to it. I'm quite stubborn, so I agreed. In the morning I'll just have apples, and I'm also allowed bananas because the inside of them is white, and a glass of milk." To help with the challenge, he has ordered six-month bulk supply of salad cream. Link

3. "Postcard delivered to washing machine man"

A postcard sent by a boy to his grandfather addressed only to "The Washing Machine Man, Ixworth" arrived at the right address two days later. James Tungate, 6, posted the card while on holiday in Bude, Cornwall. His father Richard wrote on top of the postcard: "I bet the Royal Mail can't deliver this." Two days later the card arrived at the home of Gordon Palastanga, 62, of Ixworth, Suffolk, who is known as a washing machine repair man in the area. James also wrote on the card, which was posted first class: "Dear Granddad, we caught 57 crabs. From James." Link

4. "Lethal 5ft bird roaming free in Kent"

A 5ft bird similar to an ostrich is on the loose in Kent after its owner put pigs into its enclosure. The South American rhea escaped from its home in Benenden on Monday and RSPCA officers warned it could kill a human with one strike of its claws. Spokesman Roy Jezard said: "People want to pat them, but I don't recommend it. They're so strong it's unbelievable. They will also go for your eyes with their beak, so if you see it, report it to the RSPCA or the police." The owner of the flightless birds, Sue Savage, said she kept them for their eggs. "They lay between 200 and 300 each year and these sell on Ebay for £30 each. I bought some pigs and introduced them to the rheas but the birds didn't like the look of them, leapt the fence and took off." Link

Monday, September 04, 2006

Brickin' yer trailer hitch

In Washington I managed to catch a few minutes of OLN - the Outdoor Lifestyle Network (i.e. hunting, fishing, etc). Amongst the bloodletting I found what is possibly my new favourite sport - Freestyle Bullfighting. Here the hosts explain the upcoming action, in true Wild West style - anything advertised as the "roughest game of tag you've ever seen" gets your attention. As soon as I found out that it's a 'bloodless bullfight', my conscience was appeased, and it was game on.

The basic premise of Freestyle Bullfighting is the 'matador' (I never learned what they called themselves), runs about with the bull, with no weapons, and tries to get as close as he can without getting skewered. Judges score each bout (which usually lasts about 40 seconds), on various factors, adding on points for tricks, jumps, and the ability of the bullfighter to tease the steer into a rage without becoming splattered around the arena.

As you can see, it's not entirely bloodless. The bull always ends up trotting away, but often the bullfighter has to be helped (or carried) off. The 'Mexican fighting bulls' take no prisoners, and as the men try to get close to them, one wrong move and this happens. "A very dangerous game of cat and mouse" is how the commentators described it, going on to produce such beauties as "That's a slobbernocker hit!", "That'll sure brick yer trailer hitch!", and my favourite, used to describe the photo above - "Oh! He just got flipped like a cheese omelette!"

It seems one of the rising stars of Freestyle Bullfighting is Dusty Tuckness. The fighters' only protection is a fairly substantial suit of body armour and the ubiquitous cowboy hat. Tuckness was in the lead after the first round, and had been drawn against 'Lolly Pop'. To keep things fair, the bulls are allocated randomly, as some are reasonably docile - so the fighters waste precious time running around them to get them going - and some are psychotic and the fighters waste precious time running away from them. It seems the fighters prefer this, as they can do more flashy moves if the bull is keyed up.

Twenty seconds into his bout, Tuckess becomes even more of a rising star in Freestlye Bullfighting. He tried a risky jump over the bull's head from the side, and Lolly Pop lifted his horns and catapulted Tuckness into orbit. They breed them tough where he came from though, and he flipped off his hat and ran back at the bull, jinking and feignting to regain some points. "How did he get up from that?" asked the commentators, incredulously. "You've got to give credit to the bull."

Even more brilliantly, it's not just mano-a-toro, as each bullfighter has help in the form of a large padded barrel. He can roll this around and use it for protection (which they get points for, even if it seems a little scaredy - not that I would say that to their faces, of course). They also use the barrel as a springboard to jump over the bull and gain more elevation. Even better than that, the barrel has a man inside - the barrel man - and every now and again he pops his head out of the top, and feet out of the bottom, and scampers along to the fighter to offer help. They apparently don't mind being rolled at the bull, but woe betide the fighter who gets the barrel end on to the horns, exposing the rump inside to a painful goring. "You've got to protect your barrel man."

This is how it's supposed to be done. One of the later competitors wound up winning the event courtesy of this jump. Toby Inman ran full tilt at the charging bull, and leapt over the head, landing on his feet as the bemused bull pelted onwards, wondering where the foolish creature asking to be skewered had gone. The crowd went beserk, and as the bull was led away to a quiet paddock somewhere, the victor flung his hat into the crowd and took their praise. "That's textbook!" proclaimed the pundits "and I didn't think he could read that well!"