Archive for June, 2012

Ginza lunch: Vegetarian curry buffet

June 30, 2012

At first glance, the above photo taken in a Tokyo restaurant might appear to show a fairly routine assortment of curries with some rice and naan bread. But do you notice that the two pieces of naan are different colors? That’s because the paler one in the background is ordinary naan, while the one in the center of the photo is vegan naan.

I took this picture at the Ginza branch of Nataraj, a vegetarian Indian restaurant whose 1,100 yen lunch buffet I partake of about once a month.

And if you zoom in on the curry near the rear of the photo, you’ll notice something amazing: It’s made with black-eyed peas. These are so rare in Tokyo that all the Japanese people I’ve asked for the name of these lovely legumes—including the wait staff at the only other place I know of that serves them—have been stumped. But thanks to the signage at Nataraj’s lunchtime buffet, I now know black-eyed peas are called “robia mame.” Googling this term led me to the anticlimactic discovery that they are also known as “kurome mame.”

The Nataraj buffet consists of rice, four different kinds of vegetarian curry, the two kinds of nan, a token salad, coffee and tea, and kheer rice pudding for dessert.

The four curries have been different on each of my visits, and I’ve always enjoyed at least three of them. Usually all four. There always seems to be a soupy lentil curry, and on one recent visit it was intensely garlicky – which I mean as a compliment. There’s often one dish spicy enough to make me sweat, while the rest are milder. Sometimes there’s a sweet curry, such as creamy korma made with nuts and fruit. Other featured ingredients include peas, beans, mushrooms, onions, potato, cauliflower and chewy vegetarian “meat.”

As tends to happen at all-you-can-eat buffets, I often eat more than I intended to. But since it’s all veggie, it’s easier for me to tell myself that this is OK.

Nataraj info
Address: 7th floor, 6-9-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Phone/Fax: (03) 5537-1515

Volkswagen’s unbelievable Laputamobile

June 16, 2012

Volkswagen’s latest concept car is a Star Wars style landspeeder. Or is it?

I was reading James Fallows’ Atlantic magazine blog recently when I saw a startling photo of a hovering car in a post he wrote about promising new developments in personal avaiation. A flying car! How cool!

I clicked on the link, which led to an article titled “Chengdu designer creates hovering vehicle for Volkswagen” at a site called Go Chengdu. As I read the article and watched the embedded video, I began to smell something fishy.

The car was supposedly built in Chengdu, China, based on an entry in a “People’s Car Project” that solicited ideas from the public. The wheel-less vehicle flies just above the surface of the road with no visible means of support or propulsion. One of the first and biggest questions to come to my mind was, “How does it work?”

Fortunately, the video’s narrator answered that. His explanation, according to the English subtitles in the video, is that “Chengdu is geographically unique. Chengdu has a lot of unique minerals underground. The Maglev Car or the Hover Car uses cutting-edge technology. It reacts with the minerals underground to float.”

This made perfect sense. I’ve heard of this technology before. It was described in great detail by Jonathan Swift in his novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” At one point in that book, Gulliver visits Laputa, a flying island in the sky. How can an island fly? Like this:

“But the greatest Curiosity, upon which the Fate of the Island depends, is a Loadstone [magnet] of a prodigious Size … sustained by a very strong Axle of Adamant passing through its Middle, upon which it plays, and is poized so exactly that the weakest Hand can turn it…

“By means of this Loadstone, the Island is made to rise and fall, and move from one Place to another. For, with respect to that Part of the Earth over which the Monarch [of Laputa] presides, the Stone is endued at one of its Sides with an attractive Power, and at the other with a repulsive. Upon placing the Magnet erect with its attracting End towards the Earth, the Island descends; but when the repelling Extremity points downwards, the Island mounts directly upwards. When the Position of the Stone is oblique, the Motion of the Island is so too. For in this Magnet the Forces always act in Lines parallel to its Direction….

“By this oblique Motion the Island is conveyed to different Parts of the Monarch’s Dominions…

“But it must be observed, that this Island cannot move beyond the Extent of the Dominions below … [because] the Mineral which acts upon the Stone in the Bowels of the Earth, and in the Sea about six Leagues distant from the Shoar, is not diffused through the whole Globe, but terminated with the Limits of the King’s Dominions.”

In other words, Swift’s readers would be unable to duplicate Laputa’s technology at home in England, just as watchers of the hovercar video would be unable to operate a similar vehicle outside of Chengdu. You need those “unique” minerals underground. (Too bad those minerals go unnamed.)

Further arousing my suspicions, the woman who supposedly created this wondrous vehicle is identified in the Go Chengdu article not as an engineer (a background that might enable a person to build a flying car) but as a local student of animation design (a background that might enable a person to make a flying car video).

My disbelief was further strengthened by the fact that a cursory Internet search turned up no photos of the car that were not stills from the video. Surely Volkswagen would have taken lots of pictures, and surely the amazed bystanders we see in the video would have snapped it on their cell phones. Where are those images? The car was supposedly displayed at the Beijing Auto Show, but I found no photos to back that up.

Moreover, I found no reference to this car on Volkswagen’s main international website – not even on the pages dedicated to bragging about its technological innovations or “show cars.” Nor was I able to spot a photo of it at the People’s Car Project website. I admit that I did not do exhaustive searches of these sites, looking at every single page, but you’d expect such an amazing innovation to have a high profile if it were real.

I wouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this if not for the fact that James Fallows, whom I usually consider reliable, presented it with a seemingly straight face on a date other than April 1.  A bit of Googling revealed that the Huffington Post also picked up this hoaxy video and appeared to take it seriously, as did a number of blogs. To be fair, HuffPo presented it as a “concept video,” but they still wrote as if it were a realistic concept.

It’s a gag.

UPDATE (June 19, 2012): Snopes is on the case. Details here.

Scenes from a slaughterhouse

June 15, 2012

In 1989, photographer Seiichi Motohashi visited a Japanese slaughterhouse where cattle were being killed, gutted, skinned and cut up for meat.

Some of the documentary photos he took there are now on display at the Ginza Nikon Salon, a one-room gallery in Tokyo, through June 19. They will also appear at the Osaka Nikon Salon in Umeda, Osaka, August 9-22.

Having been to the show, I can report that the photos are not as gruesome as I had feared. Nor are they as educational as I would have liked.

One of the first pictures shows a cow walking up a ramp into the building, but after that the real focus is on people. We see them doing a variety of jobs: removing skin, cutting up meat, loading trucks, cleaning the facilities, and cooking lunch for their fellow workers. One of them is seen at the end of the day washing and sharpening an array of knives. Another stands at a workbench, doing something to a cow’s severed head. It all looks like hard work, but most of the people we see are going about it matter-of-factly.

There are plenty of details to wonder about. What is that guy doing to the head on the table? What is the purpose of the various tools we see? Why are things done in the way we see them being done? Unfortunately, there is no text accompanying the photos, so we are left to wonder.

The most memorable person – in part because he is seen in several photos – is the man who kills the cattle by putting a gun to their heads and firing what appears to be a metal rod into their skulls.

In one image, he is standing on left side of the photo, holding his arm out toward a cow on the right. The photo was taken an instant after he pulled the trigger, with the muscles in his forearm tensed and the cow’s body reacting to being shot. Its leg muscles have contracted in such a way that all four of its hooves have left the floor. Looking at it, I couldn’t help thinking about Eddie Adams’ 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photo, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.” I’m not suggesting the scenes are morally equivalent, but the similarity in terms of action and composition was inescapable.

Another photo of the same man at the slaughterhouse shows him standing alone and looking rather unsure of himself with the gun hanging in his hand by his side. His job appears to be the least physically demanding of any we are shown, but it is probably the hardest of all.

Tokyo venue information here.
Osaka venue information here.
Motohashi’s “Toba” photo book here.