Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Shinka Hair Salon

Getting my hair dyed takes twice as long here as it did at home.  I used to think of this as a colossal inconvenience - I mean, who wants to spend 3 hours getting their hair colored?  But, I've decided it's time to adjust my attitude.  For all the time it takes (and all the money I'm spending) I might as well enjoy the experience.  So I've decided to think of it as an extravagant indulgence instead.  I'm guessing that's how the salons want me to feel (and probably how most girls here do feel) because it is much more of an event than it ever was at home.

I've tried out a few places here in Tokyo, but I've been to Shinka Salon twice and I'm really happy with their services.  I'm always greeted at the door and my coat and bags are quickly whisked away. Then I'm offered teas and other beverages and given lots of English magazines (imported from Australia).  They even give you a lap blanket and a pillow so it's more comfortable to rest the magazine in your lap.  Then my stylist (Miyuki) figures out what I want done with my hair.  The dyeing does take absolutely forever, but my understanding is that it's because Japan doesn't allow chemicals as strong as the US uses - and it's taken a million years everywhere I've ever gone, even in Hong Kong.  Then for the hair washing the chairs lift up and flatten out so you're lying down very comfortably while they shampoo your hair (and at least in the winter they cover you with an electric blanket too!)  After the wash comes a shoulder massage.

Yesterday I got my first haircut here.  I've dyed my hair while we've been here over the past several summers, but I've never gotten a haircut in Japan.  I showed Miyuki a picture of what I wanted, and we talked about it for a couple minutes, but then I buried myself in a magazine so I didn't get super nervous watching the hair come off.

It was perfect!
She even gave me some tips on how to style it, and demonstrated for me.  I came home raving about the experience, and I'm sure John thinks I'm turning into a ridiculous spoiled housewife, but I'm just happy to have a place I'm comfortable getting my hair done.
Hours: M-F 11:00-8:30. Sat and Holidays 10:30-6:30, Closed Sundays and 2nd & 4th Mondays
Phone: 03-5575-6767 for English, 03-5575-6768 for Japanese
Address: 5-18-20 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Monday, February 25, 2013


Last week Raku and I spent a day exploring Enoshima, a tiny island to the south of Tokyo.  We went to a spa on the island in December which I briefly mentioned in this post.  But this time we went to actually explore the island.

Reaching Enoshima is an adventure in itself, including a ride on the Enoden line which runs little old train cars.  Not all of them are quite this old, but we rode in one that had wooden floors!

Once arriving at Enoshima station we then had to walk through the neighborhood (stopping to buy snacks along the way) until reaching the bridge to walk across to the island itself.  I believe there might be buses you can take to the island, but each time I've really enjoyed the walk past cute stores, stopping to buy mochi or cinnamon rolls from roadside stands, and the great view from the bridge.

Enoshima is known for the myth of a dragon that used to terrorize the island's residents.  But then a beautiful goddess emerged from a cave.  The dragon fell in love with the goddess and proposed marriage, but she would only accept his offer if he would stop harming the people of Enoshima - and so they were saved.

The island itself is great to explore, and is laid out in a simple path that leads from one point of interest to the next.   The first stop was a shrine with a carving of the dragon.
Climbing up past the shrine is the Samuel Cocking Botanical Garden. It had beds of tulips, trees from many countries, as well as a number of tropical plants blooming while we were there.

Inside the garden is the Sky Candle, a lookout tower with a view of the island.  On clear days you're supposed to be able to see Mt. Fuji.  Unfortunately for us, the sky didn't clear until later in the day.

Past the Sky Candle is a second shrine.  This one features a dragon guarding a cave.

Just past this temple is a short walk to a gate where couples can place a lock with a message and then ring a bell together.  There are several shops along the way selling locks with heart attached, or you can bring your own.

Finally there is a path down to the caves where the dragon and the goddess are supposed to have lived. When the tide is out you can also explore the rocks below the caves and even see local fishermen.

The tour of the caves is also very nice. The first cave has a number of ancient statues, and as you enter you're given a tiny candle to light the way. The second cave is small, but it has a recreated dragon's lair. Be warned, the climb back up from the caves feels like a million stairs!

At the end of the day we found a small coffee shop where we relaxed after a long day of walking around in the cold.  I've had a great time on both visits.  (Though I will note that if you go for the Enospa it seems to be better to go in warmer weather.  While our experience was nice, I was disappointed that the outdoor pools and baths were closed in December).  As we walked back across the bridge toward the train we saw that the sky had cleared and we were able to see Mt. Fuji as the sun was setting.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ready for Spring

The days are starting to get longer, and though it's still cold there are moments when I think that soon I won't have to bundle up every time I go outside.  It's been so sunny that I find myself wanting to do lots of outdoor activities (and then getting outside and remembering how cold it actually is and what a wimp I am).  I've heard this winter has been unusually cold, and though I know I'm going to regret even thinking this when I'm melting in the summer heat, I'm really excited for the weather to warm up.

I think that all of Japan probably shares my feelings because everyone is gearing up for spring.  And spring means Sakura (cherry blossoms).  The Ume (plum blossoms) are already here.  Many neighborhoods and shrines are having plum blossom festivals.  This week I picked up some peach blossoms (we think, though they look very much like plum blossoms) to decorate the apartment.  But cherry blossoms are the main event!

Starbucks is ready with Sakura themed cups
In fact, each year they make a special line of sakura cups that are only sold in Japan.  It seems that I get excited about every seasonal event, but especially so about flowers, so I had to buy one.

Filled with coffee it's supposed to look like sakura at night

They even have a special drink - Sakura White Hot Chocolate.  John hated it.  I thought it was nice in the beginning, but by the end it was overpoweringly sweet.

It looks better than it tastes
But Starbucks is not alone in the excitement.

These taste great!
The beer is ready for spring!

Sakura Liqueur
Expect sakura cocktail recipes to come soon!

As exciting as all the sakura themed products are, I'm way more excited for the actually flowers, and to try out the viewing parties.  I hear they can be magical and beautiful and gorgeous.  I also hear they can be claustrophobic with lots of people crowded together getting wasted.  A full report to come in April.

But even better, I'm looking forward to a spring full of days outside, evenings of cocktails on rooftops, and not having to wear a puffy coat, scarf, and gloves all the time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Akiba Adventure

We had been trying to decide the best way to access U.S. television and movies in Japan. We had first considered getting a specific media streaming box like an Apple TV or a Roku Box. I was having trouble deciding on a specific box because different boxes are able to access different content.

Eventually, I began considering just using a computer connected to the TV because then I wouldn't be locked into a specific manufactures device and would have access to almost any content.

At first I was looking at a Mac Mini because they're very small and would look nice sitting under a TV. After considering the price, however, I started thinking about building my on Home Theater PC (HTPC). While a Mac Mini would have cost around $600, I thought I could build my own HTPC for about $325. In building my HTPC, I would also be able to reuse some spare hard drives which significantly lowered the cost. 


Once I had decided on an HTPC I had to decide which parts to use in my system build. The first big choice was the processor. Was I going to use AMD or Intel? Normally this would have been an easy choice since Intel processors outperform AMD processors across the board except in some very specific instances, but in this case I would be relying on onboard graphics. 

AMD Trinty APUs are a very attractive option when a discrete graphics card is not going to be used. The build-in graphics capability in Trinity processors outperforms Intel's HD graphics that are included with Intel chips. Intel chips, however, use much less power under load (both chips use very little power when idle) and so I was left with a tough choice. 

Ultimately, the decision came down to whether I intended to use this computer for graphic intensive applications (e.g. gaming). While I wasn't sure exactly for what I would use this system, I decided to optimize the system for the specific uses for which I was sure it would be used  (streaming video and listening to music) and not pay for extra features. Therefore, I went with the Intel chip (i3-3225) which has a 55W TDP that is significantly less than the AMD alternative. I chose the i3-3225 because it's an Ivy Bridge chip and has Intel HD4000 graphics.

The next choice was the motherboard. This was an easier choice than the CPU because I only had three requirements for the motherboard: (i) H77 Chipset, (ii) Micro-ATX, and (iii) HDMI. While I had never before purchased an ASRock motherboard, I had heard good things. ASRock began as a subsidiary of ASUS that specialized in low cost hardware (viz. cheap), but has since been spun-off. My choice was the ASRock H77M which checked all the boxes and was cheap (even better).

For RAM, I decided to stick with two 2GB DIMMs (2x2GB) of  DDR3 RAM running at 1600mhz that should be more than sufficient for watching video. I could have gotten away with 2GB, but I decided splurge in this one instance. I hadn't picked a specific brand but was going to see what was cheapest when it came time to place my order.

Similarly, I decided on the specifications of the Power Supply (PSU) but didn't decide in advance on a specific brand. I probably needed less than 100W, but there are few low wattage ATX power supplies. Instead, I decided to purchase a PSU with an output of between 320W and 380W. PSU's in this range generally have the best price/performance ratio for lower power builds. In addition, I decided that the PSU would have to be at least 80% efficient at normal loads. High efficiency is generally a sign of high quality parts and a PSU can take down a whole system if it fails.

Finally, I decided on was the Silverstone Milo ML03B as the case. This is a low profile micro-ATX case that looks very similar to a cable box. In this case, looking similar to a cable box is a good thing because my goal was for my HTPC to blend into the background. At first, I considered getting a full height micro-ATX case just in case I wanted to add a full height card later, but again I managed to resist this basic human instinct to keep my options open and decided on the low profile case I listed above.

My build had shaped up as follows:

Motherboard: ASRock H77M
RAM: 4GB DDR3 1600mhz
PSU: 320W-380W 80+ Efficiency
HD: Kingston 64GB SSD, 2.5" WD Black 500GB, 2.5" Samsung Spinpoint 1TB

The next step of course was actually buying all the parts.


At first I was considering purchasing everything on just for the sake of convenience. Recently, however, I had discovered a website that compares prices across different Japanese websites called I first discovered this website when researching credit cards, but Kakaku is also very good for comparing the prices of computer parts and other products. Using Kakaku does require being able to read Japanese, but most words relating to computer parts are really easy because they're either in English (e.g. i3-3224, H77M, etc.) or are katakana cognates. 

Kakaku lets you browse as well as search so it's possible to select a specific item and have it compare prices across different stores. Kakaku even factors shipping into the price and lists from where the item will be shipped.

From browsing Kakaku it became clear that was not a good choice. Unlike in the U.S., Amazon's prices were higher than lots of other Japanese retailers. From my research, the most cost competitive Japanese retailers were Tsukumo, Two-Top, and Faith. Two-Top's prices were the lowest overall and so I decided to check it out. Of course buying computer parts means a trip to Akihabara (Akiba) the electronics district in Tokyo. 

We went to Akiba one night after I got of work to pick up all the parts. We wanted to look at some other items in Yodobashi before heading to Two Top, so I browsed their PC parts selection while we were there just for comparison. On the whole, Yodobashi's prices are much higher than other stores. Yodobashi's prices might be competetive if points are factors in, but I didn't want to bother factoring potential futures savings  into to my decision.

Two Top was a little hard to find in Akiba. After wondering around for about 15 minutes we did find Two-Top. It has bright yellow signs in the windows that say 'Buy More' in red text. Once inside I started to look around but there was one problem; there weren't any computer parts to browse.

Two Top was set up similar to an auto parts store in the U.S. All of the parts were behind a counter and customers had to ask a sales person for a specific part. Part of my strategy had been to browse and see what was available, but it appeared this wasn't going to happen at Two Top. There were signs hanging from the ceiling that list all the parts behind the counter, but I still wanted to be able to browse the parts before deciding. If, however, you know the exact part your looking for, Two Top is a pretty good place to go. 

Next I tried Tsukumo eX, another large computer parts retailer. Tsukumo is near the Akiba Don Quijote (the same one where AKB performs) and is a narrow 6 or 7 story building. I first paused outside to consult the floor guide to determine my plan of attack.

I first headed to the Intel CPU floor which also housed Intel motherboards, PSUs, and RAM. I browsed the motherboards and easily found the ASRock H77M. It turned out that Tsukumo was having a sale where the price of the CPU and Motherboard would be reduced by 4% off (unbelievable savings!) if purchased together. This sale actually made Tsukumo's prices almost equal to Two Top and so I'm glad I ended up at Tsukumo. 

Next I looked at the PSUs. At first I was completely lost. I hadn't really done any research and few brands common in the U.S. were represented. Nevertheless, there was one 350W 80+ Gold unit (about 90% efficient) by Kuroutoshikou (玄人志向). This PSU one of Tsukumo's recommended power supplies and, though I'm not in the habit of blinding following a sales clerk's recommendations, I decided on this one. Later I discovered that this PSU was actually made by Seasonic (one of the premier manufacture's of PSUs) and was a relatively new unit not yet available in the U.S. 

The final item on this floor was RAM and in this case as well I wasn't familiar with a lot of the brands. In the end, I relied again the store clerk's advice and ended up with two sticks of Patriot RAM that met my specifications. 

I then took these items up to the counter and selected my CPU. All CPUs are kept behind the counter, but all are in plain sight. After selecting the i3-3225, I asked the store clerk if I could leave this items on this floor and return after I had chose my case. He agreed and I left to go look at PC cases. 

I had already decided on my case, so the rest was relatively easy. I found the case I wanted, took a card from the pouch hanging underneath the price listing for the case, and took the card up to the cashier. It turned out that this one was the last one in stock and the case would have to be retrieved from storage, but five minutes later the case arrived and in three more minutes I had paid and the box containing the case had a handle attached to it for easy carrying. 

I then went back downstairs purchased the rest of the parts and headed home. We got home late so I didn't get to put the computer together until the following evening, but all in all the build was pretty easy. The hardest part being attaching all the hard drives. So far the build has worked out fine for an HTPC. It's pretty quiet and has been very reliable over the month I've been using it so far. 

Tsukumo eX
Hours: 10:00-10:00
Phone: 03-5207-5599
Address: 4-4-1 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Two Top
Hours: M-F 11:30-8:30, Weekends and Holidays 11:00-8:00
Phone: 03-5209-7330
Address: 3-14-10 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Friday, February 15, 2013

Be My Chocolate

I hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day!  John and I celebrated in semi-Japanese style.  Here, girls give chocolates to guys on Valentine's Day and then on March 14 - White Day - guys reciprocate and give candy or small gifts back to the girls who gave them chocolate to begin with.  There are even different types of chocolates you can give on Valentine's: "romantic chocolates" or "obligation/courtesy chocolates".  For example John and his office mate both got some chocolates (which were very pretty) from their secretary, and next month John probably will give her white chocolates back because they signify friendship rather than romance.  I've also read that marshmallows are popular, so I guess we'll see what's for sale that looks nice.

Raku and I had grand plans of making Smitten Kitchen's caramel brownies for John and Leo - complete with homemade caramels.  But after multiple disasters including "melted spatula caramel swirl sauce," "under-cooked brownie batter surprise," and finally "overcooked glue your jaw shut caramel brownies" we were left with giving them each 2 homemade caramels  we had luckily set aside earlier in the day.  (Just as a note, these disasters were a result of substitutions we made, not the recipe - and also my stupidity with the spatula)

Since Valentine's Day is all about the guy here I made John's favorite grilled cheese sandwiches (with pepper jack, tomatoes, and bacon) for dinner and then we went to see the perfect Valentine's movie.

So Romantic...
At the theater we saw some weird statue which I thought nothing of, and John thought was a chocolate man.  Later we learned it was a chocolate Bruce Willis statue for Die Hard 5!  I don't know who came up with that, but the only thing better was Cold Stone's Valentine's Day marketing.

John did agree to be my chocolate

Of course with marketing like this we had to get ice cream before the movie.  John selected Chocolate Devotion - the most appropriate flavor.  It was one of our more fun Valentine's Days, and I'll be sure to let you know how we celebrate White Day next month.

Oh, and just because it's funny, earlier this week we went to an electronics store so John could buy a new graphics card.  Look at this hilarious folder he got as a free gift - the heart says Happy Valentine's Day.

John says she looks just like me

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hie Jinja

Last week Raku and I went to Hie Jinja, one of the larger shrines in Akasaka - and one of the more important shrines in Tokyo I later learned.  Hie Jinja was built in either the 1400's or 1500's and moved a couple of times during the Tokugawa Shogunate.  It has remained government supported until today (though it no longer receives as much support as it did before WWII).  Parts of it have been rebuilt to be quite modern, and though it dates back many centuries it does not have the ancient and secluded feel that some of my favorite shrines do.  When we got there I realized I didn't have a memory card in my camera, so apologies for the quality of the iphone photos.  

The only shrine I've seen with an escalator

Hard to forget you're in the middle of Tokyo
The skyscrapers seem to overshadow everything
Despite that, the inside was quite beautiful.

Oops, you can see our shadows

The intricately painted ceiling was beautiful

But the best part of the temple we were surprised to find when we wandered out what we thought was the back was a staircase of tori gates.

So beautiful and peaceful

Taking pictures of each other taking pictures

Hie Jinja
Hours: open during daylight hours
Address: 2-10-5 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Trip to Kappabashi Dori

A couple weeks ago I went to Kappabashi Dori with some friends.  Kappabashi is an area catering to restaurants that sells every type of cooking and serving object imaginable.   We saw everything from pots large enough I could have climbed inside to $4000 pizza ovens.  Although it caters to restaurants anyone is welcome to shop there, and we found many useful items (including plates, frying pans, mixing bowls, and chopstick holders).

Giant Pots

This store sold Americana decorations

Kappabashi is generally called Kitchen Town in English, but Kappabashi actually gets it's name from the Kappa - a Japanese mythical creature that lives in bodies of water, lures people in to drown them, and eats cucumbers.  There's even a cucumber sushi roll - the kappamaki - named after this creature.  Kappabashi has a golden Kappa statue that we made sure to see.

He looks like a frog-man to me

One of the more unusual things about Kappabashi is that it has made it into some tour books as a tourist destination.  Many restaurants display plastic models of the foods they serve, and this is where they can be purchased.  Several books recommend going to see these plastic models.  If I was a tourist I wouldn't take the time, but since we were there we thought why not?

I particularly like the floating forks in the pasta dishes

In the end, I only bought some ohashi oki (chopstick rests), but it was a really fun trip, and the next time I need to buy anything for the kitchen I know where to go.

Aren't they cute?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

American Kitchen Appliances in a Japanese Kitchen

Before moving here I couldn't decide whether or not to bring my kitchen appliances with me.  The problem is that the voltage of the electricity here is slightly lower than in the US.  This doesn't matter with anything that uses a charger, like a phone or a laptop, because the electricity is converted anyways.  But it means that a clock that is plugged in will run more slowly so it won't keep time, and our light bulbs aren't quite as bright here.

I tried to research online how my kitchen appliances would do here, but I couldn't find any concrete answers.  Raku told me she couldn't find the answers either, so they left all sorts of things in the US or got rid of them.  I'm writing this post in hopes that it will help other people when they're trying to find the answers that we couldn't.

 I knew that space would be limited, and I didn't want lots of useless items sitting around, but I also knew how useful these items would be if they did work.  So, I gambled and brought everything.  And here's the great news - everything works!

Our toaster broke during the move, so I can't vouch for it.  But, I read that heating elements wouldn't work.  This hasn't turned out to be true because I've cooked several successful meals in my crockpot.  I've found that the heating element is fine, but because of the lower voltage it doesn't get as hot, so I just use the high setting for low, and everything comes out perfectly.

My food processor also works perfectly.  I've been trying to decide if the blade actually spins slower, but I can't tell.  And even if it does it doesn't effect the performance at all.

My hand mixer and my stand mixer both work too.  (Raku and I used them to make a cake yesterday!)

On a side note, our lamps and my hair straightener and curling iron are working as well.