Osaka: Birthplace of Instant Noodles

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Designing our Cups

During my university days near the end of the month when money was tight, I would buy instant noodles for some cheap meals to make my budget go a bit longer. I didn’t really think about the origin of instant noodles until I moved to Osaka, Japan. Momofuku Ando invented the technique to fry-dry noodles, add flavoring and dried vegetables and meat and most important, put all in a sealed styrofoam cup perfect for warming up the noodle soup.

His background is interesting. He is Taiwanese and grew up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. He attended Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Life was tough after World War II in both Taiwan and Japan. Momofuku saw people waiting in long lines for hot noodle soup. There was plenty of flour around after WWII from the American occupation forces and that led to Momofuku experimenting in his modest home. He perfected instant noodles, first coming out with them in 1958. Eventually after some stop and starts and a bankruptcy, he hit the right formula as head of Nissin Foods. He turned the company into an international company with over $100 million dollars in profits, and factories all over the world, including Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

He built a museum in Ikeda, a suburb of Osaka where he died in 2007 at the age of 96. We took the tour and made our own instant noodles. You can decorate the cups, choose your flavoring and four ingredients. I chose “seafood” flavoring and added shrimp, green onions, edamame and kim-chi.

Quite a legacy he left as the inventor of instant noodles. The number of companies and types of instant soup-style cups has proliferated. They are not the most healthy food to eat, being high in sodium, but on a cold day or while traveling, a convenient, hot cup of noodles really hits the spot!

Living in Asia I’ve learned how to eat noodle soup with chopsticks. It is proper etiquette to slurp noodles, as it is acceptable and expected of eating companions. Scientists showed that the increased air intake of slurping enhances the flavor of the noodles. We went for the real noodle, called ramen, which is technically, a wheat-based noodle in a pork or beef broth. Americans call instant noodles ramen and the two terms have become synonymous.

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Hakata Ramen – Ippudo 

We have a famous ramen chain restaurant called Ippudo near our house. They specialize in the tonkatsu ramen, which is from Kyushu, the most southern of the main four Japanese islands and is pork-based. They are one of my favorite meals in winter.

 

 

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Xi’an China: Terracotta & Walled City

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Qin Shi Huang’s Army for the Afterlife 

After spending 3 days in the capital Beijing, we took a high-speed train to the city of Xi’an, located in central China. It is famous for the 8,000 terracotta warriors buried with one of the emperors in 200 BC.

The warriors were amazing! It is like seeing a video or photographs from over 2000 years ago. You really got a sense of what they looked like and how they dressed. Each one was an individual, so there were all different kinds of soldiers, some fat, some skinny, tall, short, etc.

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“Man Bun” circa 200 BC

The emperor had three regiments of soldiers, horses, chariots, etc. lined in deep ravines of hardened clay. Archaeologists believe they were built to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is crazy that something this big was forgotten over time, but I guess 2000 years is a long time. The warriors were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. The site of his well is preserved.

I thought the statues were found intact, and some were, but most were in pieces. Archeologists carefully reassembled the statues and put them in their original places so people could get an idea of how they were arranged. Many of the statues remain buried, being preserved for future studies. Sadly, they were painted when they were made and when exposed to the air after so many years, the mineral paint faded within minutes when exposed to the air. The tourism infrastructure that has grown up around the site is a bit off-putting, but educationally, it is such an incredible piece of history that it doesn’t matter. It is worth the time to go out to the site.

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Riding the City Walls of Xi’an

Xi’an is about the size of New York, and as many cities in China, I never heard about it before coming here. City officials went crazy over decorative lights and it is very entertaining to see so many lights.

On our last day in the city, we rented bicycles and rode the almost 14 kilometers of ancient city walls, surrounding the old center of Xian. The wall was perfectly preserved, as most city walls are only preserved in fragments, but in Xi’an, the entire wall is intact, with a moat on the outside. There is a marathon on it next month that I would love to have run. Riding the entire length of the walls gave me a good perspective of the old China inside the walls, which were temples and small, Socialist-style apartments. It contrasted from the new China, huge, glass and steel apartment towers on the outside of the wall.

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The Contrast of Old and New China

 

 

Latest Reading: Lincoln in the Bardo

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During my week in China, I read George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), a Man Booker Prize winner. I love historical fiction and in one way, the book fulfilled this. The story centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who succumbed from typhoid fever in the first year of Lincoln’s presidency at the start of the Civil War. Lincoln had my parenting style, smothering them with love and trying to give them as many moments of joy and life experience as possible. For him to lose his son at age 11, I totally sympathized with him. Saunders fixes on a report of Lincoln going into the mausoleum where his son was buried after the funeral to see him one more time. The author uses historical accounts to give context to his son’s death. I didn’t realize that Lincoln faced so much criticism about his parenting, his handling of the war, etc. Human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 150 years as evidenced by the criticism of the president today.

The other half of the book is a ghost story. “Bardo” is a Buddhist concept (Saunders is a Buddhist) similar to the Catholic purgatory. Saunders tells the stories of the many ghosts stuck in the bardo of the cemetery in Washington DC where Willie Lincoln  was interred. The ghosts think back to their lives and deny to themselves that they are dead. It took me awhile to get into the rhythm of the book as it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative. Saunders quotes the various ghosts and they tell each other’s stories. Then there are chapters of historical research where he quotes journals of Lincoln’s contemporaries.

It was an entertaining read but the unorthodox writing style of Saunders lessened the enjoyment for me.

I always try to pick some words to add to my vocabulary that I found in the book. They are as follows:

  • consternation – feeling anxious or dismayed at an unexpected event
  • predilection – a preference or special liking for something
  • tarry – to delay or be tardy in acting or doing

Beijing – Global City

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The kids with Nadia and Cathy in front of Kunming Lake (Summer Palace)

We spent a day visiting the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Beijing. I always wanted to go to the infamous Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 protests where government soldiers killed several thousand (numbers vary) citizens, and the Forbidden City. I didn’t know former dynasties also made a huge Summer Palace and a Temple of Heaven. Those four sites plus the old city of Beijing took up an entire day. My big take-away from the experience was the emperors were very narcissistic. The amount of manpower that it must have taken complete these massive palaces is amazing.

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The family at Tiananmen Square

Security getting to the square and inside the Forbidden City was tight. We had to go through a couple different checkpoints. There were huge number of tourists (averages 16 million visitors per year), mostly Chinese visiting the palace, so it took us about 30 minutes to get to the front gate of the palace. There was a Communist party meeting taking place, this being just after President Xi Jinping was named to another term, and some of the square was blocked off. As with everything in China, the square is huge, covering 109 acres.

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One of the many Chinese tour groups passing through a gate in the Forbidden City.

The name Forbidden City makes it sound more exotic than what is really is. Forbidden is a translation that refers to the fact that people could only enter and leave with the emperor’s permission. Once again, the place is just massive. There are thirteen enormous decorative gates that separate vast plazas. There are 980 buildings on the 180-acre site.

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These warmers on motorcycles are a good idea!

The summer palace is basically a man-made reservoir (Kunming Lake) which workers built a large hill (Longevity Hill) from the earth and rock where the lake was excavated. We walked along most of the lake and I was most impressed with the 786 meter “Long Corridor” that featured exquisite art work on every beam and panel.

The Temple of Heaven was the place of worship for the emperors. Today there are beautiful gardens and temples. It was funny when Oliver stood on the spot where the emperor talked to the gods. It was a round, stone platform. The color schemes of dark red, blue, gold and green continued throughout all of the palaces.

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Oliver’s blonde hair and vivacious nature made him a hit with the locals.

We also took a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets of the old city. The distinctive grey bricks of the buildings combined with the red lantern decorations and Chinese flags, gave it a cool look. The alleyways (hutongs) are protected but with the growing economy, some areas are being gentrified and it is feared the entire area will be redeveloped. Below is a video I shot with Oliver in the rickshaw.

rickshaw through old Beijing

We also visited the Beijing Zoo. Most of the animals are in small, depressing cages and cells. The exception are the headlining Chinese Pandas. They are in a beautifully done living areas. It was fascinating to watch them strip bamboo. They would run it through their teeth and collect the leaves in the side of their mouth. They then put the leaves in their paw and chew them.

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Breakfast at the Beijing Zoo

Finally, we went to eat several nights at the APM mall, one of the many shopping districts of the “new” China. They made a nice European style walking street. Most of the places were typical Western luxury stores.

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New Beijing – the APM Mall 

 

Beijing & the Great Wall of China

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Chinese Flag Soaring over the Tianshou Mountains and the Great Wall

I am catching up with my blog posts during our trip to China last week. The internet connection at the hotels was not very good.

I was very excited to see China. Because it is so large (3 times the population of the USA) and growing economically so fast (estimated that it will pass the USA as the world’s largest economy in 2028) the influence China has and will have on the earth is huge. All of us should understand the country.

We stayed inside the second ring in the center of Beijing at the Prime Hotel, located near the APM mall and walking street shopping district. It was a 4-star hotel and with Chinese management,  was very Chinese and is still learning how to cater to foreign tourists. It was nice to walk to the mall and see all the expensive store fronts and electronic billboards. Our first night we took the kids to Pizza Hut after an almost 4 hour-flight from Osaka.

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Reunited with Uncle Jack at Pizza Hut Beijing! 

My uncle arranged a tour guide to show us around the city for three days. We first visited the National Stone Palace and watched the craftsmen cut jade into jewelry and large and small statues. The ancient Chinese valued jade, believing it brought fortune and health. There was a patio set (table and chairs) for $45,000 and statues for sale over $65,000. We bought a bracelet for Ocean and a series of carved spheres within spheres which represents good fortune through the generations.

We then visited the Ming Dynasty Tombs (1368-1644), a huge cemetery complex covering 80 square kilometers, one of the many UNESCO world heritage sites near the city. After visiting the tombs, the Forbidden City and Summer Palace during our stay, the power, wealth and egos of the rulers is truly awe-inspiring. The tombs are at the foot of Tianshou Mountains and we drove through them after leaving to visit the Great Wall of China.

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Ocean and Nadia Climb the Great Wall of China

China has a very long history and the country grew and shrank, depending on the strength and unity of its rulers. At times, warlords were fighting each other and chaos followed. Other times, a family was able to seize control of the country and make it strong. At the time the wall was built (approximately 700-200 BC), the Mongolians, who ruled China for a long time were driven out and the wall was built to keep them out. We walked a long section of the wall called Mutianyu. It is about 70 kilometers outside of the city in a rugged mountainous area.  It was a beautiful, sunny and cool day and perfect for walking up and down the wall. It is one of the great iconic sites of the world and being there was unbelievable.

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The amount of work that went into the fortifications is amazing. Much 8,000 kilometer wall is in ruins. It would be an interesting hike to walk the entire wall, which I am sure someone has done. There are some shorter hikes (2-4 hours) people can do and if I ever get back, I will try to do some of them. Every 500 meters or kilometer there were fortification towers to house soldiers. I wonder if the wall was effective in keeping out the invaders from the northwest. Modern times and tourism infrastructure have come and there was a sort of bobsled run you could take on the way down to the entrance to complex which was quite fun for the kids.

We finished the day by seeing the 2008 Olympic village, stadium (bird’s nest) and torch. China is an immense nation and the Olympic architecture matched it.

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Latest Reading: Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown

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This is the third book I’ve read by Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian novelist. He is most well known for his 1988 book, Satanic Verses, which depicts some irreverent aspects of the historical life of  Islam prophet Muhammad. The leader of Iran at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or execution order. He became a free speech advocate and is still alive today.

Shalimar the Clown, published in 2005, is the story of a murder in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. He goes back through the lives of the people involved leading up to the event. Most of the book takes place in the disputed northern Indian region of Kashmir where the murderer is from, but also sections of the book are set in World War II France, Delhi and Los Angeles.

As an older, well-traveled person, I now understand most of Rushdie’s references to places and events. That was not the case when I read his books twenty years ago. I really enjoy the details and the breadth of cultures covered in this book. I do not like his tendency to include elements of magical realism in the story, similar to Latin American writers. I prefer my fiction to be plausible.

Reading novels is becoming less common with the advent of the internet. However, I like to unwind from screens and it calms my brain to reflect on the details of the story. It helps me fall back to sleep when my mind is racing with the many tasks I have to worry about as a head of school and a father of three children. Because of the complex plot and interweaving events and characters, it was the perfect book to make me sleepy.

Some parts of the book were a little tedious, specifically the mythology of Kashmir, the there was plenty of action and plot twists to keep me reading. I wonder why none of Rushdie’s books have been made into movies. This would make a good one, especially since it deals with some themes that resonate today, including terrorism, ethnic conflict and migration.