A super short story

It feels weird every morning. Very early on as far back as I can remember, I was taught to wake up, get cleaned up, do my prayers, and then head to the table to get my daily dose of energy. This was the morning routine. I get the waking up part- fairly straight forward. The cleaning up is a little different for me but I get the point of it. It is the prayer part I don’t really understand much.
The concept of a creator is not alien to me. On the contrary, it is the easiest thing for me to understand and acknowledge. That is not the hard part. The hard part is to pray. What is a prayer and why do we do it everyday? Are we asking The Creator to save us? To protect us? To deliver us from evil? To guide us? To allow us to exist? I wasn’t very sure. The Creator provided us with the social construct within which we lived, learned, thrived and eventually became obsolete. The Creator also had many, many of us to create and sustain that you could excuse her for not giving individual attention to each and every one of us.
By reciting the legend of the Creator, do we become better ourselves? By reciting the many names of the Creator, do we become wiser? What makes the prayer so important?
I realize I am running out of time in holding your attention and so I will stop here. I need to go plug myself to the wall outlet. I need a recharge before my battery shuts down for the night. Maybe the very effort of spending a few minutes everyday to pause and reflect in the guise of a prayer is why we do it. I could definitely use the extra minute or two. The newer models boot up much faster than I do. My boot sequence is slow and any additional time I can take to reflect is valuable in achieving a better steady state for the long day ahead.
Maybe thats why I was programmed to pray every morning.

Tokyo Traveler Tales – Part 2: Tokyo and thereabouts

This is the second in a series of posts on my recent trip to Japan. Here is the itinerary of our trip to provide some context to the time we spent in Japan.
Saturday (Day 0): Flew out of US.
Sunday (Day 1): Arrived in Tokyo at night. Checked into hotel in Tokyo.
Monday (Day 2): Day #1 in Tokyo covering Sensoji temple in Asakusa, Shinjuku National Garden, Harajuku, and Shibuya Starbucks intersection at night.
Tuesday (Day 3): Day #2 in Tokyo – day trip to Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi (planned tour). Night stay in Shinjuku.
Wednesday (Day 4): Morning train to Narai-juku. Spend day in Narai-juku. Evening train to Kyoto via Nagoya. Night stay in downtown Kyoto.
Thursday (Day 5): Day 1 in Kyoto covering Nijoji castle, Kinkakuji temple and Ginkakuji temple.
Friday (Day 6): Day 2 in Kyoto covering Fushimi-Inari (Vermillion Gates), Nishiki market and generally exploring city by foot. Evening Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo. Night stay in Nihonbashi.
Saturday (Day 7): Day 2 in Tokyo (shopping focused) covering Ginza and Akhihabara.
Sunday (Day 8): Early morning flight back to the US.

 

In the first post, I talked about my motivation to travel to Japan and how we went about planning for the trip. In this post, I will talk about our time in Tokyo.

As you can see our Japan trip was bookended by stays in Tokyo. This was intentional. Since we were checking in and out of hotels on an almost daily basis, we didn’t have the luxury of shopping until the end of the trip. Japan offers so many interesting things to see and buy that we felt it deserved a day on its own and so we had to schedule a day in Tokyo at the end of the trip. This way, we didn’t walk around lugging it for the entire week. Of course, it is a different story altogether that I stole that day entirely for myself by spending it stationery, manga and electronic shops. More on that in a bit.

Day #1 – Asakusa, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya
We landed in Tokyo late the previous night so this was really our first day in town. My wife had done extensive research on how to get from Iidabashi where we were staying to get to other spots in Tokyo. So we picked up a day pass on the metro and started our sightseeing in right earnest. We started with the Sensoji temple in Asakusa.

 

Sensoji temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo founded over 1400 years ago. This spot was also a good quick introduction to the crowds in Tokyo. As soon as we saw the road leading up to the temple we were reminded of the hustling streets back in India. Specifically this. And yes, it was pretty crowded. This was also the moment we realized that cherry blossoms had not bloomed in Tokyo yet which was a bummer. We waded through shops peddling umbrellas and ninja toys and sweetmeats and sweets and meats to the temple. The temple itself was beautiful as was the garden next to it. It was also an interesting contrast looking at the temple with the Tokyo high-rises in the background. Old and new.

 

The Sumida river runs close by and we had read about cherry blossom trees lining up the roads next to it. So we walked in the hopes of spotting some blossoms. We did, but it was very few. What we did see was the unique building that can only be described as weird, the Asahi Beer Building with the odd looking flame on top. I swear, to us it looked like a golden radish. It is unmissable and uniquely weird.

 

We took the train to head to our next hanami at the Shinjuku National Garden. We got there and realized we were famished. Worry not as there was a Neapolitan pizzeria nearby where we treated ourselves to a fantastic margherita pizza.Food in, we walked to the garden which was packed for hanami with locals and tourists on what was turning out to be a pretty cloudy and chilly day. We walked through the length of the large park with the occasional blossom here and there. We were feeling bummed on the lack of quality blossoms when we happened upon this wonderful grove of blossoms at their peak. It was gorgeous.

 

We wrapped up and walked a bit and then took a cab to Harajuku. We weren’t sure what to expect to Harajuku but Takeshita street toon dispelled that doubt. What a crowd. Ranganathan street in Japan. Throngs of people, eating and shopping. We dropped into a large Daiso (much bigger than the ones in US) and the little guy picked up a gigantic cotton candy in rainbow colors. Rain started falling and we picked up an umbrella at a nearby store and headed to the train station. We were tired but wanted to finish off Shibuya intersection before heading back. The Shibuya junction was even more packed in a much larger scale compared to Takeshita street. Great sight at night. We took a train back to our hotel and promptly lost our way from the station to the hotel. A nearby Indian restaurant employee was helpful enough to point us the right way. Long way, many new things seen, tired and off to sleep.

 

Day #2 – Day trip to Mt. Fuji and Hakone
The second day was dedicated to a tour to Mt.Fuji. We boarded the tour bus at a nearby hotel and were taken to a bus depot not far away where we had to jump into one of a dozen or more tourist buses headed in different directions. We settled down with twenty odd folks on a trip to Hakone and Mt.Fuji. The bus had to take a circuitous route due to an accident and the guide entertained us with stories of Japan and their culture. We found out that a recent cold front had dumped a ton of snow at Mt.Fuji and we were lucky that the tour was open. We were not going to go as high as we had originally hoped though. We reached Fuji in a couple of hours. The snow capped Fuji was a sight to behold. Would have loved to go farther into the park. We then were taken to a nearby restaurant for a traditional Japanese meal. We had signed up for a vegetarian meal and were given a melange of fruits and veggies in a platter. It was tasty.

 

From there, we drove to the banks of Lake Aashi where we took a ferry to the other side of the lake to then take the ropeway up 1800 feet to a shrine. It was cold and snowed in but what a gorgeous sight up and down. We made our way back to Shinjuku bus depot around 8 at night and then to our hotel. We were famished and tired. A quick google search told us that “restaurant Muthu” was not far and we walked over to get an average and overpriced but definitively vegetarian meal before calling it a night.

 

Day #7 – Ginza, Akhihabara
We got back to Tokyo on Friday night from our trip to Kyoto (more on that on my next post). We had reserved a furnished apartment in Nihonbashi and after a comedy of errors (on my part), we settled down at our place later than desired and pretty tired. We didn’t do much that night.

 

The next day was our last full day in Japan and we had a ton of shopping to do. So without further ado, we stepped out only to notice a nice little stationery shop 25 steps from our apartment. I loaded up on some basic notebooks and inks, went back to the hotel, dropped things off and restarted our day out. We took a train to Ginza where we saw people, massive stores and more people and more massive stores. We walked around soaking it all in on our way to the stationery Mecca of Itoya.

 

So I can spend another 500 lines describing Itoya but I won’t bore you with it. I will keep it simple. Suffice to say, it is an analog tools lovers paradise. It has pens, pens and more pens. And paper- normal, premium, extra premium. Notebooks, inks, craft material and so much more. We spent the next 3.5 hours in Itoya just exploring the 8 floors of stationery awesomeness. Itoya also boasts a 12th floor Cafe called Cafe Stylo which has a healthy vegetarian menu which was a blessing for us. We also hopped across the street to another Itoya where the little guy and I spent time crafting our perfect notebook. We picked our notebook cover, elastic, paper type and quality and metal studs. We also selected some text to go in the front. The kind folks at Itoya asked us to come back later in the evening to pick up our handcrafted notebook. We got out and took the train to the other dream destination in Tokyo, Akhihabara.

 

Akhihabara is a different kind of a beast compared to Itoya. It is the entertainment and electronics hub of Tokyo. It offers the dazzle of anime and manga to its devotees. It also offers some massive electronics stores like Yodobashi Camera. We had to pick up some manga collectibles for some relatives and went hunting at Mandarake– an 8 floor building filled with geeks and their super expensive toys and comics. After 2 hours of walking around manga stores amidst many many girls and women, all in school girl uniform, we went to Yodobashi Camera.

 

Yodobashi Camera is an massive 8-floor store filled to the hilt with electronics of all kind and folks hawking them to great effect. We checked out the hundreds of camera lenses, smart phones, Bluetooth speakers and so much more. We had to leave soon to head to Itoya to pick up our notebooks. We rushed back to Itoya, picked up our notebooks and then upon the advise of the smart wife, went hunting for a rare specimen- a vegan Ramen place T’s Tan Tan. After 30 minutes of hunting and lots of walking, we landed at our ramen place, deep in the bowels of the Tokyo train station. The ramen was spectacular.  It was a great way to finish off our trip. We headed back to our apartment and started packing.

 

The next morning, we took our train to Narita and headed back home. In the last and final post of this series, I will describe our experiences in Kyoto.
Other Posts in this series

I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!

green eggs and ham

And thus climaxes a brilliant little children’s book by Dr.Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham. As a child growing up in India, I had never heard of Dr.Seuss. The first time I ever heard of the author was when Jim Carrey played the Grinch in the 2000 adaptation of “How the Grinch stole Christmas“.

We recently got a copy of “The Cat in the Hat” as a birthday gift for my toddler and I read my first Dr.Seuss book. This was an interesting read but ultimately too long to be read to a 3 year old who just adores it. Upon much coaxing by the boy, I got him a copy of Green Eggs and Ham and thus has begun my love story with Dr.Seuss. This is a remarkable book in very many ways. In addition to being totally addictive not just to a toddler, but also the adults in the house, the book conveys a very timely message to the kid to give all kinds of things to eat, a shot before giving up on it. At a time when we are trying to introduce new kinds of food with different flavors and textures to the boy, the book serves as a wonderful encouragement tool.

Now I want to read all of Dr.Seuss’s books. Now I see why his books are so popular with teachers and kids.

By the way, did I mention that Green Eggs and Ham still sells a *LOT* even after 50 years, so much so it is almost never discounted?. And that it has all of 50 words in the entire book?. Brilliant. Just brilliant…

I do so like green eggs and ham!

Thank you! Thank you! Sam-I-am!

“The Thomas Crown Affair” and the heist genre

Rene Magritte

A random song on my iPhone today happened to be Nina Simone’s wonderful “Sinnerman”. That got me thinking about the heist genre. Why, you may ask?. For those who are unaware, the song elevates the climax of one of the better heist movie’s out there- The Thomas Crown Affair. No, not the original version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but the remake starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. I have seen the original and the remake and personally I prefer the remake. The chemistry between the lead characters and the “cool” factor is much better in the remake than the original. Plus, the climax in the remake rocks big time. I mean big, big time. For those who have seen the movie and would like to hear the song and see the climax once more, here it is.

Along the same lines, the heist/grand theft genre offers some very enjoyable movies. Here are some recommendations:

1. Oceans 11, 12, 13 – 11 is brilliant and a must watch. 12 is not bad. 13 is fun but not as good as 11.

2. The Italian Job (original, remake) – The original is a lot of fun but the remake is fantastic. The remake is multiple viewing friendly.

3. Confidence – It is an average movie elevated by a cool climax.

4. The Heist– A David Mamet movie and true to his style features interesting conversations and a fun watch.

5. The Guy Ritchie movies – Snatch and Lock,Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Very cool movies with elevated gore and a lot of style.

6. Catch me if you can– Spielberg weaves a fun tale with Hanks and DiCaprio.

I could think of other movies that have a theft element but they would fall better under crime thrillers. We will handle that on a different day.

 

Your local Farmers Market

oranges

As a lifelong fruit lover, I have always wanted access to fresh fruits at a good price. My childhood is filled with memories of trips to Coimbatore Pazhamudir Nilayam in VOC Park. After moving to the US, it has been difficult locating meaningful fruit shops that offer fresh, local and affordable fruits on a year long basis. Not anymore.

I used to frequent the markets in PA, but they were far and few. They were also much more seasonal due to the harsh winters.

Living in sunny California (relatively speaking) means access to the weekend farmers markets all over the Bay Area. Cupertino on Fridays, Sunnyvale on Saturdays, Fremont or Mountain View on Sundays- the options are endless and the produce is fantastic. Plums, peaches and nectarines in Fall, oranges, strawberries, apples, cherries and tangerines in Spring, grapes, mangoes and melons in summer- it is just paradise. And the quality of the often times organic and local produce is spectacular. And when one gets to cut the vegetables, the difference is just palpable. The carrots are so tasty. The tomatoes from Mtn View are just outstanding. And don’t get me started on the awesome strawberries and oranges this season.

The joy of buying the fruits is elevated by the experience that is the weekend trip to Farmer’s Markets. The little guy is excited about the trains that constantly whizz past the markets. The sampling of fruits makes it a great experience for mom, dad and child. And mom, who has until recently preferred her veggies over fruits has started consuming lot more fruit thanks to the market’s enchanting tableau.

If you are anywhere around in the Bay Area or in other warmer parts of the country, I strongly urge you to look up your local farmers markets. Its a win-win all the way.

Mouna Ragam and Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya

Mouna RagamA well written and well composed song makes for not just wonderful listening but also a trip down memory lane when you first listened to the song. The song in question has the ability to make you want more from it- as if it has the ability to last a lifetime. Thanks to Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman, I was brought up on a steady stream of such wonderful songs. Over time, preferences and choices mature leaning towards meaningful lyrics to complement a tune that connects.

One of such albums that has lasted in memory is Mouna Ragam. The Manirathnam masterpeice features brilliant lyrics by Vaali and tunes of gold by Isaignani Ilayaraja. The songs are available here for your listening pleasure. The pick of course is Mandram Vandha. Rarely has a piece conveyed so much in as little as 4 min 27 sec. SPB does wonders with Raaja’s tune and Valli’s words of such depth. The rest of the album overflows with music greatness that is at once simple and everlasting.

Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear and enjoy the music of Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya. ARR’s output has become more eclectic in recent times and lasting melodies are not quite as many as it used to be. There is a lot more experimentation as ARR, the genius is trying to expand his horizons. But VV as its popularly refered to hearkens back to simple tunes that get elevated by some wonderful lyrics. The album is available for your listening pleasure here.  Each song conveys a lot but nothing more so than Mannipaaya. All of us at some point or the other have had an argument or two that last much longer than it should with their better half. This song captures that mood with a tune that soars with every passing second.

It is also interesting to think of these sound tracks and movies in juxtaposition with their times. Mouna Ragam established Manirathnam as an auteur of the great potential, one that he would go on to live upto. Gautham Menon has been a tremendously succesful director- but one whose output has been patchy. VV (which I have not seen due to personal reasons) has been well respected and well appreciated by one and all. From a music standpoint, Ilayaraja was in an upswing when Mouna Ragam came out and it cemented his greatness. VV was ARR’s first album post his Oscar win and much was expected and all of it was delivered and more. VV stands out as one of the recent albums that actually lasts over time. A rare occurance indeed. Finally, Vaali’s words give the platform for Raaja’s music and SPB’s voice to soar much as Thamarai’s words give a solid footing for ARR’s tunes in VV.

I wouldnt go so far to compare the two movies as each viewer chooses to view them objectively but under the context of when and how the movie was experienced. For young college going kids of today, VV might mean a lot more than a more mature offering in Mouna Ragam. At the same time, folks of a generation past will definitely reminisce on what Mouna Ragam meant to them, then. I will leave people to their nostalgic thoughts then and just savor the wonderful songs for now…Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya

Is it possible to say “no” to sugar?

sugar

I recently came across a scary and thought provoking article on NYTimes on the harmful effects of sugar. The full material of the article is indirectly available on YouTube where Dr.Robert H. Lustig presents his case to a live audience. I recommend everyone to take a look at the article and better still the full presentation. If it stokes you, there is more here, here and here. Having done that, I have a fundamental question for the reader- is it possible for us to eliminate most if not all of our consumption of high fructose corn syrup and processed sugar?.

We love our coffee, tea, soda, chocolates, cookies, sweets and everything else we eat. Remember, there is sugar everywhere. It is not just in sweet things. There is sugar  in everything we eat. Given all this, can we really stop or reduce our sugar consumption dramatically?. There are so many unknown illnesses that we worry about. We know of this one thing, sugar that can cause a lot of problems- yet we hesitate to meaningfully act on the information. Is this right?

Just to be clear, natural sugars are not the problem. So eating fruits is OK. Milk contains natural sugar too. But the benifits of milk are worth the daily sugar intake hit. Its just the added and processed sugar that is a matter of concern. This includes all the aforementioned and then all your white flour concoctions, all the enriched stuff. Think about it. Maybe its time to start making changes in our lifestyle.

Are the Tuskers for real?

McCullum

The Kochi Tuskers Kerala (whoever named it needs to be put to death before he gets a chance to do another such naming disaster) have had a very interesting road to their IPL existence. It all started with Tharoor getting mixed up with all the wrong people. The false start was further complicated by infighting, franchising issues and what not. The now joke-of-the-league name was preceded by something worse, the IndiCommandos. Mercifully that was put to death before it was worn by players on the field.

After all the bad publicity (and I didn’t even mention Sreesanth yet), the Tuskers started off their inaugural season with two losses to Bangalore and Pune. The negative buzz around the team was at an all time high. The Tuskers entered their third game with the Mumbai Indians with a bad record and a lot of I-told-you-so’s. And then Brendon McCullum decided to take things in his own hands. In what can only be deemed as franchise saving knocks against two top teams in Indians and SuperKings, the New Zealander pummeled the opposition bowling and gave the Tuskers two huge wins. Ably supported by Ravindra Jadeja and some good bowling, McCullum has given the Tuskers a lot of credibility that was lacking until date. As the party crashers of the season, the Tuskers now have an dark horse tag that they should cherish. No one is expecting them to win it all and that alone should be incentive enough for them to do well. Throw in the lack of pressure and giant-killer tag and the Tuskers have all that they need to make it a memorable debut season.

Now about Sreesanth…

How to answer all the kid’s questions?

My 3 year old started talking a year ago and the vocabulary and questions have been increasing at a steady pace since then. It is a lot of fun seeing him learn and observe so many new things. The questions have started getting a little trickier now. We are often times challenged to work around very common questions on the topic of life and death, of violence and all things good and bad, of jealousy, anger and such. How do we tell them the answers to questions without alluding to all that?. How do we talk about herbivores and carnivores without making the animal in question sound evil?.

I’d love to hear from parents with experience handling such stuff.

RED is a lot of fun

RED

RED, the Hollywood movie, not the horrific Ajith movie from a few years ago, is a fun watch. I picked it up for its comic book origins(Red) but the movie(Red) shines on its own. The cast of Hollywood oldies- Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis are a treat to watch. An action movie by design, its very much a relaxed masala movie at heart. And when it happens, the action scenes are done very humorously.

The story is fairly simple- a bunch of retired old ex-CIA guys are being hunted by the agency. On the run, the group tries to piece together who and why. The plot if brought to a close admirably.

If you want a fun Friday evening movie, Red is strongly recommended.

And just for haha’s…

RED