Saturday, 28 December 2013


When you hear the word "Japan" the first thing that comes to your mind is the madness of high-tech Tokyo, crowded trains, flashing neons and anime characters who greet you at every turn.

I'm in Japan now, but nowhere near Tokyo. What? I hear you say, there is more to Japan than its famous capital city? Oh, yes. These big stretches of land between the cities commonly known as "countryside". What? I hear you say again, there is countryside in Japan? Oh yes, again. I'm here, so it most definitely does exist. 

There is no madness here. The trains are not crowded, simply because there are no trains (yes, there are towns and villages in Japan without a train station). There are no neons and the only anime character is… me. Well, sort of anime. But you know what I mean.

I've been here for all of 5 minutes and already my new friends invited me to join them for a traditional "end of the year" party. The occasion is called "bonenkai", which simply means "forget the year gathering". The "forget" part comes from copious amounts of alcohol consumed during the party, and the "gathering" consists, usually, of co-workers and friends.

And because every horse likes a good party, I couldn't say "no"!

The hotel, where the event was being held, was quite fancy (by Japanese countryside standards) and the food served was Japanese through and through.

The edibles were looking great, but before I had a chance to dig in, my new friends reminded me about using "oshibori" first. 

What's this oshibori? A wet towel to wipe off your hands before eating. In winter they are hot, in summer they are cold. Some restaurants offer disposable paper oshibori, but not this hotel. Here we got a real, hot, individually wrapped hot towel.

With clean hands and refreshed, now we could concentrate on eating.

The food looked lovely, but judging from the reactions of people around the table, it was a lot tastier with alcohol. Strong alcohol.

Japanese workplaces are very hierarchical places, where rank, age, and time spent at the company are of outmost importance. But for a few hours each year, nobody cares, and bosses and employees all drink together until they can drink no more. And what happens at bonenkai stays at bonenkai. 

That stew (nabe) cooked right on table terrified me a bit. What's that big piece of meat? No, wait. I don't want to know. I'll pass.

The eating part was over fairly quickly, everybody was anxious to get to the drinking bit and drunken karaoke.

I decided to investigate my dessert instead.

Hmmm… mochi… delicious.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas in Japan

And yes, it is Christmas time again! Deck the halls with boughs of holly… falalalalalala… I'd prefer hay than holly, but since it is the season to be jolly, we should follow the usual tradition.

Wait! What tradition? This year I'm spending the end of December in Japan, and here, anything goes, Christmas or not! So let's talk about Christmas in Japan for a bit, because it is really quite interesting how this very western holiday has adapted to the peculiar Japanese ways.

Of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas tree, and they have plenty of those here. Everywhere. 

Christmas is not an official holiday in Japan. It's not a red day in the calendar, and in fact, it's just an ordinary day. Kids go to school, mommies and daddies go to work. Nothing special. Because of that, it can be celebrated either on December 24th or 25th, depending on people's schedules. Its status is similar to that of other borrowed western occasions - Halloween or Valentine's Day. It's only purpose is to make the economy happy and convince the people to spend, spend and spend some more.

A few years (or decades) back, Christmas was a very romantic occasion, marked mostly by lovey dovey couples going out to dinner, exchanging small gifts and sharing a piece of very pretty and very Japanese style Christmas cake.

Then, as it usually goes, those couples got married, had kids and the advertisers discovered a very simple truth. That families spend more money, and thus are better for business than two young people in love. Young people usually don't have much disposable income, and families have what all advertisers love the most - kids! And kids, as everybody who's ever had one, knows very well, are bottomless money pits. Kids = Christmas presents =  profits = happy store owners. Everybody wins.

And the transformation of Christmas in Japan from a romantic couples occasion into a full blown family event was set. The transformation has been incredibly successful, and anyone who's had the misfortune of visiting Toys R Us in Japan before December 24th can confirm that.

Ok, so let's recap what we've learned about Christmas in Japan so far:

·     Christmas tree - check
·     Presents - check
·     Shopping mayhem at toy stores - check
·     Christmas sales everywhere from department stores to car dealers - check

Hmmm… so far nothing unusual, just like in the US or Europe. 

·    Christmas cake - check

Oh, wait!!! This is not what you think it is. Japanese Christmas cake is one of those very peculiar Japanese-only inventions that you can't really find anywhere else in the world. Why? Because December in Japan is the beginning of the strawberry season. Yes, strawberry. And a traditional Japanese Christmas cake wouldn't be traditional without strawberries and cream. 

White cream, chocolate cream, strawberries. Yummy!!! Strawberry shortcake for Christmas is a really great idea. Or perhaps we could try a less traditional cake this year? A strawberry grand piano! That's it! 

Of course no sane person attempts to make such a cake at home. That would be extremely difficult, especially considering the fact that most Japanese homes don't have a baking oven. Cakes are ordered at supermarkets and cake shops and then picked up at the appropriate date.

So is the chicken. Wait?! What chicken? KFC chicken? For Christmas? And yes. But only in Japan … 

Back in the 70s or so, ancient history, when the marketing geniuses were debating how to convince the Japanese public to embrace Christmas, they realized that every good holiday needs a good holiday dinner. Right? They knew that turkey was the holiday dinner of choice in the US and a few other countries. But turkey is so big and so tough, and has such a strong flavor. Not suitable for delicate Japanese stomachs! (Yes, they do believe they have delicate stomachs and unlike the western barbarians, they need more delicate fare.)

But hey, everybody loves fried chicken. KFC saw an untapped market niche and started promoting KFC Christmas fried chicken buckets. And that's how a new Christmas tradition was born.

So, they eat fried chicken and cake, but what do they drink? Oh, that's easy! Imitation alcohol-free bubbly! They call it Chanmerry here (sounds a lot fancier than flavored soda) and are convinced that it's a traditional Christmas drink all over the world.

And now, if you excuse me, I have to make sure that my friends remembered to place their holiday cake and KFC orders.
* * *

Wherever you are today my friends, in this special period of the year, I wish you that you never loose the power to dream. And then all your dreams will come true one day, I am sure. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013


We horses, swim quite well in rivers. Nevertheless almost all of us, being in the water in our childhood, dream about changing into a seahorse, to submerge and dive into the deepest levels of the ocean. Being in the Paris I understood that this type of dream is also known to people and they even managed to realize it, at least partially.

During my visit in the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie I have noticed from inside a big, long, black object outside. I was told that it is a naval submarine Argonaute, which after the end of her naval duties was given another important job - to present the life on a submarine to the civilians.

Before stepping in, we could see what parts she is composed of: Going from the aft (the back in maritime language) there is the rudder and the propeller, the backwards berth, the electrical engine section (which by the shaft is connected to the propeller), the diesel engines and generators charging the batteries. Then on the lower deck there are very heavy batteries and on the upper level the control rooms and at the bow the forward torpedos launch tubes.

The aft berth looks exactly as above. As you can see there is not much privacy there, especially that most of bunks are used by many seamen - one sleeps when another one is on duty. Now I sleep and you are on duty :).

It is not easy to control a submarine. It is more difficult then to control a car and similarly difficult as to control a horse. Because you can go left, right, up and down and additionally control the trim (whether you are horizontal, for example when all the crew is in the bow). To achieve this you must use all the controls on the picture above, since there is no saddle and rein.

To know the direction you will need a compass, and since the submarine is made of steel you can not use a magnetic one - it must be a gyroscopic one.

When the submarine is submerged a few meters it is possible to see what is around without being seen. To do this a periscope must be raised. What is fantastic in the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie
is that the periscope is really working and you can watch everything around the submarine like with binoculars.

And when you are tired of spending months at sea with all the time the same people or horses, you can always use a hatch. But if there is no emergency I advise you to wait until the submarine is in the port. And better check, before going under the sea, if you do not have claustrophobia, for example by visiting Argonaute in Paris.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Cité des sciences et de l’industrie

Last time I was in Paris I have been showing you the landmarks of Paris. This time we will have some brain jogging too. I will then take you today to the City of science and industry. It is a large building that houses many exhibitions, most of them interactive, that will allow us to learn more about the world around us.

Inside you can immediately recognise that the building is far from the clacissistic style spread all over Paris.

Let's quickly look through the window - la Geode is a 3D cinema.

Let's start with the exhibition about moder houses and the future of the places where we live. I liked most the possibility to look into a house and see the places where it looses the heat.

You can actually check it on a infrared thermal image. The big red thing is the hand of my assistant. The green one it is of course my beautiful self.

Further on let's take a closer look at the automotive industry. Here you can see various parts of a car.

And then the future of mobility in the cities a hybrid of a car and a scooter. 100% electric of course.

I have spent over half an hour in the part devoted to sounds and music. Unfortunately I did not work out yet how to make pictures of sounds. I enjoyed a lot to hear to foreign languages (especially the tone ones) and to different musical instruments.

Another amazing section was the one devoted to economy.

I have tried what it feels like to be a trader in securities. Quite stressful experience. But in the end I was pretty successful I must admit.

After looking into the human inventions and into the rights of physics, I rose my eyes to the outerspace.

First a bit of theory ...

... then some practice. This is the Vulcain engine that powers the main stage of the European Ariane 5 launcher. It is based on the technology of cryogenic propulsion, i.e., combustion of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. Both types of gas are kept liquid under very low temperatures (-183 Centigrades for oxugen and -253 Centigrades for hydrogen) but they burn at more than 3,000 Centigrades!

All right, I see it by your faces that you are not happy with this last one. So let me take you to my most favourite place in the Cite. The Planetarium. First of all, we will watch a nice movie showing us the sky above Paris. Actually, it would be very difficult to really see it above Paris - there are too many lights there.

Then we have a look at our home planet ...

... and the sun rising above it.

Here come our neighbours - Venus ...

... and Mars. Apparently the warrior planet has many high mountains and maybe one day water was there.

And a final look at our galaxy - the Milky Way.

Great, isn't it? I am sure if you ever come to Paris you will go there as well. I can bet you one hundred trillion dollars.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


Today I will share with you another highlight of the military history of Poland - the battle of Grunwald. Yes, you remember right, this is the one for which king Władysław Jagiełło crossed the Vistula river in Kozienice.

The battle of Grunwald was one of the major battles fought in Europe in the medieval era, with around 50 thousand knights and infantrymen involved. It took place on 15 July 1410 and was a major victory of the troops of Poland and Lithuania in their war against the Teutonic Order. Here you can see the battlefield.

The major element of the place is the monument, with 11 metal structures that are symbols of the flags of the troops.

What surprised me a bit is that there are also real flags there. The Polish and the Lithuanian are not a surprise (both countries formed a union at that time). But why did they put there the flag of the European Union? Is the EU a kind of successor of the Teutonic Knights? Pretty scary idea.

But there are some other strange monuments present. Like this one - don't you have a feeling it is devoted to some ancient slavic gods?

This one is formed of rocks that seem to have no special idea behind but it is not true.

These rocks are the remainings of an old monument commemorating the battle of Grunwald that was originally in Kraków. it was destroyed by the Germans at the beginning of World War II. No surprise, after all Teutonic Knights were mainly German.

If you want to see the battlefield in more details, I encourage you to take this virtual tour. Or even better, come in July to watch the live reconstruction of the battle itself. You can then compare it to the most famous picture of the battle, painted by Jan Matejko.

So come on my friends, the road is wide open and waiting for you.