Category Archives: Not Ice Cream

Retro Space Saka, Sapporo’s museum of vintage and oddities

I spotted Retro Saka in a tourist brochure picked up from New Chitose Airport, and knew immediately I had to visit. Billed as a “vintage museum,” it seemed like just the kind of unique local attraction I favor over regular ol’ art and history museums. The brochure didn’t list the address or operating hours, and googling it didn’t provide a lot more information. Apparently it’s been open since 1994, but it’s still quite under the radar. It has no website, although it does seem to have a Facebook page (liked by 125 people, as of this writing), and it’s ranked #129 of 350 attractions on TripAdvisor (none of the reviews is in English).

But, my fellow Americans and other English-speaking people, you should visit this place if you go to Sapporo. For one thing, it’s free! And photos are allowed, and there are a lot of things you’ll want to get photos of.

Some background, according to the Facebook page and one of the two English articles on this place: the museum is the personal collection of Kazutaka Saka, director of the Saka Biscuit company (Saka Eiyo Shokuhin K.K.). The company was founded in 1950, and it’s crackers are well known in Hokkaido. As far as I can tell, Mr. Saka is still alive and adding to the museum. Most of the items are everyday objects from the 1940s through the 1970s.

I walked from Maruyama Park (about 30 minutes) but you can take the Tozai line to Nijuyonken Station and walk about 10 minutes. There is no English signage, and the building has little to indicate it’s an attraction, so memorize what the outside looks like before you go or you might walk right past it.

Seems legit.

Looking from the outside, you can tell that calling it a “museum” is a bit generous. Step inside, and it feels more like a cramped old shop. Or a perverted grandfather’s house. That’s because the first “exhibit” you’ll see is this:

At this point, you might be asking yourself if you’ve made a huge mistake coming to this place.

 

What appears to be a picture of Kazutaka Saka, in front of a birdcage of dolls.

There was no one else, either visitor or staff, inside. This was around noontime on a Friday. I guess they really trust people to not touch or steal anything. Most of the items are simply set out, not behind any barriers (again, it was like being in a shop or home).

There are no plaques or explanatory texts anywhere, and the displays are basically a random assortment of collections. In one room, most of the items seemed to be from the 1950s–a collection of those perfume bottles with the squeezy balloon thing, trays of cigarette packs, shelves of cameras, a corner with half a dozen geisha wigs, etc. In one hallway, cases of creepy dolls. A shelf of gas masks. Mannequin limbs. And all throughout, vintage erotica.

Geisha wigs. They’re huge. They seemed to be made out of real hair.

 

Gas masks.

 

Saka luchador mask.

 

Bunch of rotary dial phones.

 

The panty nook.

 

Here’s a blender and a mannequin head.

 

A fat “Millennial pink” phone.

 

Random knick knacks.

 

A nice collection of lamps. And instruments. And erotic plates.

 

Vintage cigarettes.

 

Not sure what these are.

 

Icky “Sambo” merchandise.

It took maybe 30 minutes to get a look at everything. To exit, you can go out the way you came, or you can walk into an adjacent room where Saka products are sold. There are a few shelves with different kinds of crackers, and it’s all incredibly normal and disjointing, considering the preceding weirdness. I bought a bag of their most famous product, the Sapporo Beer Crackers (around ¥100, or $1), and ate them as I walked to the train station.

Retro Space Saka
レトロスペース・坂会館
3-22, 3-7 Nijyuyonken
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Cuabing/Baobing (剉冰/刨冰), Traditional Taiwanese Shaved Ice

I still haven’t had the heart to unfollow Ample Hills and Davey’s on Instagram even though I simultaneously cry and drool whenever I see Ooey Gooey Butter Cake…

But when it’s out of sight it’s out of mind, because Taiwan has its own cult of cold desserts, and I’m a convert if not a true believer.

I was at a friend’s house last week when she served us with small bowls of shaved ice on top of a few taro balls, mung beans, peanuts, red beans, sweet potatoes, and aiyu jelly. We spooned black sugar syrup over it and then filled the bowl half-way with milk.

This is the sort of dish that since I was a little kid I’ve seen my mom eat. It’s also the sort that made me turn up my nose. I remember my mom using our popsicle mold to make red bean or peanut soup popsicles, and I remember never being even a little bit tempted to try one.

To my American tastes, everything about many traditional Taiwanese desserts was all mixed up and weird. Taro, sweet potatoes, beans? These foods should be salty and hot, not sweet and certainly never cold. Desserts should be rich and toothsome, not aqueous and slick. Peanuts should be salty if not honey-roasted/embedded within a candy bar; they should be crunchy unless boiled (in which case they definitely need to be salty). The only Q food is Jell-O, and that should only be eaten if you are in a hospital or a public school cafeteria. Actually, even then you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Assimilating is fun! It’s also a proven coping strategy when you’re a foreigner who has had strong opinions about dessert. This dish I had at my friend’s house—I’ve since hunted down a vendor near my house so I can eat it all the time.

It’s called cuabing (剉冰). Apparently “cuabing” is a Taiwanese word; in Mandarin it’s called baobing (刨冰; bàobīng). Both literally translate as “shave ice.” It consists of unflavored shaved ice similar to the texture of a snowcone. It’s sweetened with black sugar syrup and is topped with at least a few ingredients such as:

  • Red beans (紅豆; hóngdòu)
  • Mung beans (綠豆; lǜdòu)
  • Grass jelly (仙草; xiāncǎo)
  • Aiyu jelly (愛玉; àiyù)
  • Konnyaku jelly (蒟蒻; jǔruò)
  • Tapioca pearls (珍珠; zhēnzhū)
  • Tofu pudding (豆花; dòuhuā)
  • Taro balls (芋圓; yùyuán)
  • Sweet potatoes (地瓜; dìguā)
  • Peanuts (花生; huāshēng)
  • Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzi)
  • Fruit (水果; shuǐguǒ)
  • Milk (牛奶; niúnǎi)

Stands serving cuabing and other traditional cold snacks are very common near street markets.

Small stand inside the morning market on Minxiang Street, Yonghe District.
Cuabing toppings.
Taiwanese ice shop
Shaved ice shop at the end of the evening market near my house.
From right to left: mango shaved ice, xue hua bing, burnt sugar bao bing (cua bing), hand-made douhua (tofu pudding). 45 NTD (roughly $1.50 USD) for a giant bowl of cuabing with four toppings.
Cua bing.
A drizzle of burnt sugar ,or black sugar, syrup.
Cua bing toppings.
Toppings underneath the ice. From top left, clockwise: tapioca pearls, grass jelly, peanuts, taro balls.

Cuabing is a traditional preparation of  shaved ice that contrasts with xuehuabing (雪花冰; xuěhuābīng), which often also gets called “shaved ice” when named in English.

Xuehuabing’s shaved ice is a water-milk mixture, resulting in a smooth ice cream–like texture and a milky flavor. It’s usually topped with sweetened condensed milk, fruit (Taiwan is especially known for its mango shaved ice), and ingredients like tapioca pearls, tofu pudding, and ice cream/sorbet. Xuehuabing is the more modern, sexy style of shaved ice that’s popular with younger people and people outside Taiwan. It’s infinitely more Instagrammable and way sweeter, so I feel certain it’s only a matter of time before it becomes mega trendy in the U.S. (outside of California, I mean). Is Ice Monster franchising yet? A summer pop-up in New York City would be an absolute coup.

Monster Ice.
Monstrous xuehuabing from Monster Ice. I’ve got a coffee flavored one, my friend’s got a milk tea flavor.

I’m crazy about xuehuabing, but I love cuabing too for all the ways it’s not like xuehuabing. I love that it’s stubbornly unphotogenic and drably colored. That it’s a dessert topped with ingredients that wouldn’t be out of place in a healthy dinner. That it’s dirt cheap and often found in a tiny open-air shop with zero amenities. Unpretentious and refreshing, it’s the perfect cap to my weekly fruit/vegetable shopping trips to the market.

One Month Anniversary in Taipei

Today marks exactly one month in Taipei. I can’t believe it’s gone by so fast. Between school and work, I hardly have time to explore the city, but I’m hoping at least my weekends will free up soon.

My big and small observations for the past 30 days:

  • One should never, ever, drink the tap water. My first week here, I got very sick from doing so. Filter it and boil it thoroughly before drinking.
  • It rains in Taipei a LOT. I estimate it has rained 85% of my 30 days here. Days and days go by without seeing the sun or keeping my shoes dry. It’s a real drag and I’m hoping April forward is drier. Carry an umbrella always and invest in waterproof shoes.
  • Studying Chinese at NTU is as effective as you want it to be. I want to be fully fluent in reading/writing/speaking by the end of 2016, and I think it will take a lot more studying and practice outside of class/homework to get there.
  • There are not nearly as many Americans in the NTU Chinese language program as I thought there would be. It’s incredibly diverse. My four classmates are Japanese, Kyrgyz, French (New Caledonian), and Thai. In the class I switched out of, my five classmates were Japanese (2), Korean, Slovakian, and American.
  • New York City’s on-demand economy spoiled me. Push Button, Receive What You Want doesn’t really exist in Taiwan. Time to re-learn brick-and-mortar shopping.
  • International cuisine should be viewed with much suspicion. I’ve not tried any American, Italian, Indian, Mexican, etc. food here, and that’s because everything about it screams ersatz. “American-style breakfast” usually means hamburgers, McDonald’s-style hashbrowns (the fried ovoid-patty kind), and other extremely salty, greasy, heavy foods. Google image search “taiwan+american style breakfast” to see what I mean:

    "American-Style Breakfast" in Taiwan
    Looks like McDonald’s is actually America’s most effective ambassador to Taiwan.
  • Pleco is a(n  inter)national treasure and I can’t believe it’s free. I would gladly pay big bucks for this app. It’s indispensable for learning Chinese.
  • In the U.S., I thought I didn’t like bubble tea. I was wrong all along and I actually love it. Enjoyment of tofu and bean curd still elude me.

Destroy Everything in a Calm and Orderly Fashion

I began dismantling my life in earnest about two weeks ago. In another two weeks, I will begin reassembling it 7,000+ miles away.

I’m leaving New York City for Taipei. It’s been a slow-motion exit, where the inkling to leave flitted across my mind nearly two years ago in 2014.  I can recall seeing a vision of my future that was not taking place in the city. It’s scary to see such a thing, because you can’t know how that vision will be realized. You only know that it means your current situation and any settled-ness and comfort that you have presently will somehow dissolve.

I felt that the least I could do was investigate how I might live in other places, so I traveled to San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles. Portland was the frontrunner, but I still didn’t have any idea how to get there. It’s extraordinarily hard to escape the inertia of your life, even when you have the desire for change. Fear of uncertainty and fear of hardship can keep you humming along the same track for a long, long time.

So sometimes it’s a real blessing when your hand is forced and the uncertainty and hardship come directly to you. In July 2015, I was laid off from my job. When an executive at the company broke the news to me, I immediately, reflexively began crying. Then I walked out of there and felt a surreal freedom to finally pursue a number of goals that were never going to be met as long as I worked at that company.

One of those goals was to visit Taiwan, which I did for one month over September and October. It had been a decade since my last visit, and it was the first time that I went by myself. The language barrier and the cultural differences were challenging, but rising to those challenges invigorated me. I was learning constantly, even if it was just sitting on the bus trying to read the stops or trying to order a cup of coffee.

When I returned to New York, I found that absence had not made my heart grow fonder. The growing sense that I was no longer suited for the city escalated into an urgent impulse to go somewhere, anywhere else. I looked at apartments and job listings on the West Coast and even toyed with the idea of moving back to Alabama (I was that desperate). I also applied to the Chinese learning program at National Taiwan University.

When I got the acceptance letter, I thought “OK, this is an actual possibility” but still balked at what it would take to get there. What kind of paperwork do I have to do? Will my job allow me to go? How am I going to find a place to live? What am I going to do with my apartment in New York? Will I lose the friendships and community I so love and rely on? Is this a huge irreversible mistake that is going to ruin me financially, professionally, and personally? I waffled on making a decision until after New Year’s Day, at which point I had less than 2 months to prepare for leaving New York/the country, if that was indeed my decision.

Or, I should say it felt like my decision was being made for me as everything slowly fell into place. I basically hopped onto a Gantt chart that started January 1 and leads up to February 22, registration day for the program and the latest day I absolutely have to be in Taipei in order to enroll. Housing, job, plane ticket, visa, moving arrangements, all of it fell into place. There were definitely moments where I was given over to despair and panic–“I’m ruining my life! I regret this decision!”–but really, there was divine providence in the speed and smoothness with which each task was accomplished.

I couldn’t have asked for a more calm and orderly way to dismantle life in New York. Let’s see how the rebuilding process goes in Taipei.

P.S. This blog is no longer about ice cream. I broke up with ice cream around November 2015. We still hang out sometimes.