Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Boulder Country Craft Breweries - The Definitive List (updated Nov. 28, 2017)

November 2017 Update:

  • Added The Post locations in Longmont and Boulder and the new Oskar Blues location in Boulder

This is a definitive list of all Boulder County craft breweries, including key details (such taproom vs. full restaurant, patios, dog friendliness, etc.) I've visited these myself and/or reached out to the brewery for details but please help keep this current! If you have any changes, let me know in the comments below.

A few provisos: 
  • I have not been to all of these (yet). I haven't visited Atom, Echo or Wild Mountain, although I've had beer from Atom and Echo.
  • This doesn't include BJ's Roadhouse as this is a national chain.
  • I left out cider and meaderies.

Brewery Name Location Restaurant
or Taproom
Patio? Dog Friendly?1 Happy Hour Notes
12Degree Brewing Louisville Pizzeria Yes Yes (patio) M-Th 4-6 pm $1 off pizza and pints
300 Suns Brewing Longmont Taproom Yes Yes (patio) M-W 2-6 pm
Asher Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Taproom Yes Yes (patio) No, but pints only $4-5 Organic
Atom Brewing Co. Erie No No NA NA Bottle releases and distribution only
Avery Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Both Yes Yes (patio) No
Bootstrap Brewing Niwot Taproom Yes Yes (patio) All day Mon.
Boulder Beer Original location (Wilderness Place, Boulder) Restaurant Yes Yes (patio) Yes CO's first craft brewery
Boulder Beer on Walnut Restaurant Yes No Yes but different every day
BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats Boulder Restaurant Yes Yes (patio) 3-6 pm daily and all day Tues.
Cellar West Artisan Ales Boulder Taproom No No No Open Th/F 4-8 pm; Sa/Su 11 am-8 pm
Crystal Springs Brewing Co. Louisville Taproom Yes Yes No
Echo Brewing Erie Pizzeria Yes Yes (patio) M-Th 3-6 pm $1 off pints 2nd site; other site is in Frederick
FATE Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes Next to (not on) patio only M-F 3-5:30 pm
Finkel & Garf Brewery Gunbarrel Taproom Yes Yes No
Front Range Brewing Co. Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) M-F 3-6pm $1 off pints
Gravity Brewing Louisville Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) No
Grossen Bart Brewery Longmont Taproom Yes Yes
Gunbarrel Brewery Gunbarrel Taproom2 Yes Yes Limited hours as they staff up - check website
The Industrial Revolution Brewing Co. Erie Taproom Yes
J Wells Brewery Boulder Taproom No Yes "Slacker hour" $2 off pints 3-4pm M-F
Regular happy hour $1 off pints 4-6pm M-F

Kettle and Spoke Boulder Taproom Yes Yes Funky nanobrewery in a bike shop with limited hours - check website
Left Hand Brewing Co. Longmont Taproom Yes No No (but free tour)
Liquid Mechanics Brewing Co. Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) $1 off pints M-Th 4:30-5:30pm
Mountain Sun Pubs & Breweries Mountain Sun (Pearl St. Boulder) Restaurant Yes No Yes No credit or debit cards
Southern Sun (South Boulder) Restaurant Yes No Yes
Under the Sun (South Boulder) Restaurant No No Yes
Long's Peak Pub (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Yes
New Planet Beer Co. Boulder Taproom Yes Yes (patio) No Gluten-free, Gluten-reduced and Barley beers available
Limited hours
Odd13 Brewing Lafayette Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) M-Th 3-5 pm All night M-Tu if you walk or bike
Open Door Brewing Longmont Taproom No No No
Contract brewer
Oskar Blues Brewery Brewery (Longmont) Taproom Yes Yes No but pints only $4
Liquids and Solids (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Chuburger (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Cyclhops (Longmont) Restaurant Yes No Food only
Lyons Restaurant Yes No Food only
Boulder Taproom Taproom but small menu Yes No Food only
The Post Brewing Co. Lafayette Restaurant Yes No M-F 4-6pm
Longmont Restaurant Yes No M-F 11am-6pm; Sa/Su 3-6pm
Boulder Restaurant Yes No M-Th 4-6pm; F-Su 3-6pm Old location of Shine Restaurant
Powder Keg Brewing Co. Niwot Taproom2 No No No
Pumphouse Brewery Longmont Restaurant Yes Yes (on patio leashed to perimeter fence and out of walkways) M-F 3-6pm & 10pm-midnight
Sanitas Brewing Co. Boulder Taproom2 Yes Yes (patio) M-F 4-6pm $1.50 off pints
$2.50 for train beers within 15 min. of train passing
Skeye Brewing Longmont Taproom2 Yes (small) No No
Twisted Pine Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes No (although dogs can stay on grass a few feet away from patio) All day Tu
M, W-F 4-6 pm
Upslope Brewing Co. East Boulder Taproom2 Yes Yes M-F 11 am-2 pm $1 off
North Boulder Taproom Yes Yes No
Very Nice Brewing Co. Nederland Taproom2 No Yes No but flagship beers only $4
Vindication Brewing Co. Gunbarrel Taproom Not yet but planned No $1.50 off pints every Mon.
Penny pints every Sun. from 2-2:30 pm
Vison Quest Brewery Boulder Taproom Yes Yes
West Flanders Brewing Co. Boulder Restaurant Yes No M-F 3-6 pm
Wibby Brewing Longmont Taproom2 Yes Yes No
Wild Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery Nederland Restaurant Yes No 4-6 pm daily
Wild Woods Brewery Boulder Taproom Yes Patio only All day Tues.
1 Dogs must be on leash (whether in the taproom or on the patio) in all of these establishments.
2 Although these breweries do not have restaurants, there is food available, either from an adjacent restaurant or from regularly scheduled food trucks.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Unexpected Delight and Unceasing Pain: Reading the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

I’m done! Woo-hoo and thank God. With the last page of Finnegan’s Wake, I have now read every book on the Random House Modern Library list of the Best Novels in English in the 20th century. Sure, it took me over 17 years (from the moment I first heard of it in 2000, at which time I’d read 13) but I am finally finished. Along the way, I discovered some wonderful books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, was surprised by certain books, and occasionally found myself just wanting to give up (and I don’t just mean give up reading: some of these books made want to slit my wrists).

Wonderful Discoveries

One of my best
discoveries from the list
One of the crucial advantages of following a list is that you discover books you never would have read otherwise:
  • John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy – From the same “lost” generation as Ernest Hemingway (with some parallels with Hemingway’s life) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but far less known, Dos Passos used a variety of experimental techniques in this trilogy (consisting of The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money). Incorporating newspaper clippings, biographies of people famous and unknown, and his own upbringing and development, he created a sprawling, Jazz Age story of people trying to get through the early part of the 20th century. I devoured this on a two-week trip to the Greek Islands.
  • Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier – My introduction to the concept of the unreliable narrator as the flaws, affairs, and emotional turmoil of two different couples are slowly revealed in a rambling, non-chronological narrative. A bit frustrating at first but ultimately a very satisfying read.
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (series) – Not just a series but a 12-novel series! I was dreading this one, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable reads on this list. The 12 novels (all written in the first-person point of view of Nicholas Jenkins, a member of the British upper middle class) perfectly capture the life of the upper stratum of British society from World War I through to the post-World War II period. It’s social history in fictional form.
  • Walker Percy, The Moviegoer – A novel of searching and questioning existence that manages not to get dragged down by its own weighty subject and retain an almost poetic, lyrical feel
  • Sinclair Lewis, Main Street – Published in 1920 but as relevant today in its razor-sharp observations of smalltown life – and funny as hell.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose – A brilliant Western novel that’s worth it not only for the vivid descriptions of Western life in the late-1800s and early-1900s (I was particularly taken by the chapters covering the couple’s journey through Mosquito Pass to Leadville, and life in the town during its boom period), but for the finely honed characters, particularly Oliver Ward, a man who’s too honest to succeed.
“Make It Stop”

The flip side of the above is that some of the books were painful to read, even occasionally causing me to stop reading anything off the list for long periods of time.
Henry Miller
You dirty bastard...
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer – Ok, I can appreciate why this novel is on the list: the radical approach to autobiographical fiction, the “diamond and dirt” aspect of flowing, lyrical narrative interspersed with absolute gutter language. But every time I read it, I felt like I needed a shower.
  • Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint – See above
  • Henry James, The Golden Bowl – He opened the tome and idly flipped through the pages. He thought about the author and what he was thinking when writing. Where was he sitting? What was he wearing? Had he recently survived an unhappy love affair? He began to read but found the book wanting. His mind kept wandering to other topics, other desires, other needs, other questions, such as “Why is there so f’ing much internal monologue?”
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy – The writing is superb and Dreiser’s realism comes through on every page, but it was like watching a train wreck (or really several train wrecks) in extreme slo-mo.
  • James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake - So it's a work of genius but it took me seven weeks to read it a few pages at a time as I simply didn't understand anything. It contains portmanteaus and adapted words from dozens and dozens of languages, and supposedly captures the dream state but let's face it: I don't want to read about my dreams. They're frightening enough on their own. On the other hand, I'm no longer intimidated by Infinite Jest...
Pleasant Surprises
I liked it! I actually liked it!
  • James Joyce, Ulysses – With the exception of Finnegan’s Wake, this is the novel I most dreaded tackling. And while I can’t claim I enjoyed every minute of it, I was surprised at how (relatively) easy it was to read, particularly when I stopped trying to follow the plot and just let the marvelous, musical language wash over me.
  • Everything on the list by William Faulkner – Like Joyce, I was intimated by Faulkner, and didn’t help myself by starting with The Sound and the Fury. But once I caught on, I was completely hooked on Faulkner’s Southern Gothic world.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita – Although I felt a bit like I did with Tropic of Cancer and Portnoy’s Complaint (i.e., a bit dirty), I was surprised and impressed by the narrator’s many spot-on observations of the U.S.
  • Lawrence Durell, The Alexandria Quartet and John Fowles, The Magus – Radically different ways of looking at the same events, experimental yet eminently readable

Friday, September 8, 2017

Oh Tokyo I Really Can Sleep in Your Arms...

See my "Japan Practicalities" post for details about Tokyo transportation, accommodation, etc.
The International Travel Writer's Guild (or whatever it's called) must have a rule: you can't write an article about Tokyo without using the phrase "city of contrasts." I wouldn't want to break that rule so I'll just say this:
Shrine in Yanaka neighborhood

Tokyo is a city of contrasts.

No, really. It is. You can be weaving your way through crowds in the cavernous sprawl of Shinjuku Station (the world's busiest), and then less than five minutes later find yourself on a quiet side street with a park and ballfield on one side and the only people in sight in a quiet line for a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint.

Or you can wander from Shibuyu Crossing (reputedly the world's busiest street crossing) and two blocks later find yourself walking up a quiet hill (of course, you eventually realize that the reason why it's quiet is that it's lined with love hotels - the rates posted by the hour or half-day give that away - and it's the middle of the afternoon, hence the quiet). 

Or you can stroll through the majestic forests and gardens of the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, then cross the street into the fashionista district of Harajuku and almost lose your breath in the crowd.

Or (one final example) you can dodge the hurly burly dance of trucks, carts, motorcycles, bicycles and other carriers of infinite variety in the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, barely able to catch a breath from the press of people and the visual explosion of thousands of products, then cross a canal into the imperial garden of Hamarikyu and feel the stress and press of the city slip away as you amble along paths lined with trees and flowers.

It's that contrast, that dance of the ancient and the ultra-modern that makes Tokyo such a delight. Here in a few bullets are my highlights of Tokyo:
  • The aforementioned Tsukiji Market is not to be missed. I did not attempt the early-morning tuna auction madness (you'll find plenty of online advice about that) but did experience the market at its crazy morning peak. Just wander with no particular destination in mind, have sushi for breakfast at one of the many restaurants, and keep your head up!
  • Gardens, shrines and temples everywhere! Highlights for me were:
  • Hamarikyu
    • Sensō-ji and surrounding temples - madness! Thousands of people, the smell of incense, the tinkling of fortune sticks, the gong of bells
    • Meiji Shrine and surrounding garden - the opposite of the above with towering trees lining gravel paths, a lush and well laid out garden, and the sense of stepping back in time, plus lovely wedding parties!
    • Piss Alley
    • Hamarikyu, mentioned above
  • Quaint neighborhood walks:
    • Yanaka, a quiet residential neighborhood with hidden shrines and temples, an interesting sprawling cemetery, an old "ginza" (shopping street), and a couple of small museums
    • Kagurazaka, sometimes referred to as the French Quarter of Tokyo due to an expat population that's flavored the area, just another nice walking district with narrow streets and interesting hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafes
  • Golden Gai - You don't understand the meaning of the term "shanty bar" until you poke into this warren of narrow "streets" (most of which I could almost touch walls on both sides) with five seater bars and oodles of atmosphere. Like stepping back into the 19th century of Tokyo
  • The free view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building #2
  • Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho, more popularly known as "Piss Alley," a narrow lane of yakotori joints that reeks (quite literally) with atmosphere

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My Interesting (and Occasionally Painful) Journey Through the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

Probably 15 or so years ago, when I was first struggling with writing and realizing I needed to read a lot more fiction, an author I knew suggested looking at the Random House Modern Library Board Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. As he noted, the list was controversial (the main criticism being “too many dead white males”), but whether or not you agree that these are the best 100 novels from the century, they’re still 100 really good books.

When I first saw the list, I’d read 13, mostly in various high school and university English classes. I’m now up to 95. It’s been an interesting and occasionally painful journey.

The great thing is that I’ve been introduced to authors I wouldn’t have otherwise known. Take John Dos Passos, for example. Although a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he is not near as well known. And yet his U.S.A. trilogy (which, even in a Penguin paperback, runs almost 1200 pages – a perfect read for a two-week solo vacation in the Greek Islands) is a brilliant book, with interesting experimental touches and a unique style, that captures a whole era.

Or Ford Madox Ford, another author I’d never heard of, whose The Good Soldier fascinated me with its “unreliable narrator.” The story seemed to change from page to page, which made for interesting, if challenging, reading. Other finds (i.e. books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise) include Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

It also introduced me to books like Richard Wright’s Native Son or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that reminded me that some problems haven’t gone away. All the King’s Men had a similar effect: even though it was written in the 1930s, it could have come out yesterday.

The bad thing is that I occasionally find works that are a bit painful. I actually had to take a break after reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I totally understood why it’s on the list – his intense stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the artistic process and Paris, combined with stark descriptions of the gutter life (not to mention the mixing of real life and fiction) is groundbreaking, but I felt dirty every time I read it. Seriously. I wanted to shower after each chapter.

I had a similar reaction to Lolita. As with the Miller book, I know why it’s on the list: Humbert Humbert has an incredible voice. His observations about the U.S. and his sly sense of humor in these observations are spectacular. But the sadness of the character and the squirminess of the situation make for an uncomfortable experience as a reader.

Henry James' The Golden Bowl is another tough read: soooo much interior monologue. As with the above, I can see why it's on the list - its in-depth portrayal of infidelity and one woman's growth from naivete to knowledge - but I struggled to read this over 6 weeks. I normally finish a book within a week.

The journey is worth it, but if you decide to take the plunge, be prepared for some rough waters along the way.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Japan Practicalities

So you want to travel to Japan? Here are a few practicalities to keep in mind, things that you’ll find buried in guidebooks or that I found to be different from what the guidebooks and websites told me.
Internet and WiFi
Food and Drink


No, they do not speak English. In my entire time in Japan, I encountered only a handful of people who spoke enough English to have a conversation. The folks in JR ticket and tourist information offices had enough English to conduct transactions, but in restaurants, shops, and accommodation, and on buses and trains, it was Japanese with a smattering of English. (The automatic announcements prevalent on buses and trains are generally in both Japanese and English.)

So do you need to speak Japanese? Not necessarily. I spent three months trying to learn Japanese only to find that my lessons didn’t provide the vocabulary I needed. But I was able to get by just fine with a few key phrases, hand gestures and Google Translate. (Download the app and the Japanese character set, and you’ll be able to use the camera in your phone to scan Japanese characters and get an approximation of what they mean. It works okay, although the first time I used it was on a very complicated Japanese toilet and the result was “Ass Woman Video,” which wasn’t exactly helpful.)

Do learn at least a few key phrases (for example, the formal version of thank you “arigato gozaimasu” or the expression people use at the end of a good meal “gochiso sema deshite”) and you’ll experience a phenomenal reaction. The Japanese were more appreciative of my pathetic attempts at their language than any other country I’ve visited.


Japan is one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies – but they do not like credit cards. Almost every transaction is cash, even in major cities. I used a credit card exactly twice: once at a chain hotel and once at a major tourist site. You’ll need cash, and lots of it. This is where 7-Eleven is your friend. Aside from having an amazing selection of food (see below), almost every 7-Eleven has an ATM that works with foreign bank and credit cards. And there are 7-Elevens everywhere! (Standing at one street corner, I could see three of them.) If you find yourself in one of the rare places without a 7-Eleven, look for a post office as the Japan Post Bank machines also work with foreign cards.

Internet and WiFi

“There’s very little free WiFi in Japan.” I read this frequently before going, but found it not to be true at all. Every place I stayed but one (and that was a backcountry lodge) offered free WiFi. This includes regular hotels, minshukus (traditional Japanese inns), ryokans, and AirBnBs. Almost every bar and restaurant I visited also offered free WiFi. On top of this, many cities offered free WiFi services, either widely or in their tourist information offices. 

That said, I’d still recommend renting a pocket WiFi device. I used a well rated company called Global Advanced Communication and got a premium version that offers 75Mbps (which is about what I get on a good day at home with a premium Comcast tier). It cost me about $160 for 20 days, including an extra battery (which I did not need). It was waiting for me at the JAL ABC office in Haneda and they provide a return envelope so you simply need through it into a red mailbox before going through security at the airport. It worked everywhere except for a section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route that was pretty remote. I was offline for about 4 hours that day. Having the pocket WiFi allowed me to do Facebook live videos, post videos and photos quickly, and FaceTime regularly with my wife. (I actually walked through several sites with her on FaceTime so she could get a taste of my trip.)


I stayed in every type of typical Japanese accommodation but capsule hotels. It’s really not as expensive as I expected. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, I used AirBnB and was able to stay in small but incredibly well organized studio apartments that were very close to everything for around $90-100 per night (less in Hiroshima). I stayed in regular hotels in both Tanabe and Toyama and they were both around $65 a night including breakfast. 

Among the highlights of my trip were staying in minshukus (traditional Japanese inns) and a ryokan (traditional high-end hotels). These rooms are advertised by size using tatami mats (traditional straw mats used for floors) as the measurement. A “6-tatami room” is the size of, duh, six tatami mats, which isn’t much help unless  you know that the average tatami mat is 1.653 square meters depending on the region. So a 6-tatami room is going to be somewhere around 9-10 square meters or 100 square feet.

The rooms are very simple: sliding doors with rice paper, traditional images and characters on the walls, a low table. Don’t worry that you won’t see a bed: one of the closets will have the futon and bedding, and at some point during the evening (often during dinner), magic elves will set your bedding up in the middle of the floor. You can also use the closets to store your clothes (or just leave your suitcase in a corner as I did). The ryokan was similarly simple but did feature a raised area with a slightly higher table for eating and working.

In a minshuku, you’ll likely eat with the other guests around a regular dining room table. (Minshuku have a bed and breakfast feel about them.) This is a wonderful opportunity to learn some Japanese as you try to communicate with the other guests. I shared a table with five Japanese sisters one night and it was one of the most wonderful evenings I’ve ever experienced. 

A ryokan is a much more involved experience (and much more expensive). You’ll be greeted at the door and assigned a hostess in full kimono who’ll show you the hotel’s features and then take you to your room where you’ll find an outer alcove to leave your slippers. She’ll serve you tea and a sweet on the low table and take your times for dinner and breakfast. And when she leaves, she’ll kneel outside the room in the alcove and perform a full formal bow before closing the sliding door. You’ll dress in a kimono and spent the rest of your time wandering around the kimono and haori (a kind of big jacket one wears over the kimono for warmth and more formality), dipping in the bath (make sure you learn about Japanese bath etiquette, which is actually fairly simple: wash extremely thoroughly and ensure you remove all soap), and eating.

Eating in a ryokan is not done in a group but in individual rooms. The one I stayed at featured a low table on a raised shelf with a single piece of stone on each side to step up and leave one’s slippers on. I discovered that there’s a recess that’s heated under the table so I could swing my legs in there, which was a relief as I can’t sit cross-legged for very long.


The Japanese transportation is probably the best in the world. All that choice can be overwhelming, especially for North Americans used to an underwhelming public transportation system. Here are some tips to help you through the maze:

  • Get a Japan Rail Pass – This is a no brainer if you’re planning on traveling around at all. I used intercity trains on only seven days during my 20 days in Japan and saved over $100 compared to regular ticket prices – and that was with a 21-day pass. With some good planning (e.g., stay in Tokyo at the beginning of your trip and, say, Kyoto at the end with a week of travel in between), you could even get by with a seven-day pass. Note that you can’t buy a JR Pass in Japan at present. You need to buy it via one of the many agents you’ll find online. They’ll send you an exchange voucher that you then swap for the pass in Japan. (I picked up mine right at the airport.)
  • Using the JR Pass in Tokyo and Kyoto – I didn’t realize that the JR Pass is also useful in cities. There are several JR lines within Tokyo (notably the Yamanote Circle Line, plus some other lines that cross over it). Put these together with some walks (probably under 30 min.) and you could potentially skip the Metro altogether. Even Kyoto has two JR Lines passing through it that offer access to various temples and shrines with some amount of walking. And if you’re flying into Haneda, the JR Pass covers the Tokyo Monorail.
  • Regular vs. Green JR Pass – Being a bit worried about how my 6’3” frame would fit into a regular train seat, I upgraded to the Green (first class) pass. It cost me about $200 more than the regular pass (although only a little over $100 more compared to buying the tickets separately) and it is a wonderful experience: huge, wide seats with an enormous recline (at least on the Shinkansen and some Limited Express trains). I did sit in regular class on a Shinkansen once and I would have had plenty of room, although the Green cars are definitely less crowded and quieter. You generally need to make reservations with the Green Pass. This is usually a simple matter of walking into the JR Ticket Office. This is only a problem if the ticket office is extremely busy, which happened once. You can’t use the ticket machines, unfortunately. You can also make reservations with the regular JR Pass and it’s probably a good idea, particularly during busy periods.
  • Checking train schedules – Google Maps will show train schedules, but if you want to be absolutely certain and if you have a JR Pass, use Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com) and click the “JR Pass Search” option, which will only give you options that are free with the JR Pass. (They also have an app that gives a free month but then requires a monthly payment after that first month.) You’ll need to be very certain that you’re looking at the right train stations, given multiple options in most cities. I used Google Maps to place myself near a train station, and then Hyperdia to confirm train options. I’d then show the ticket agent a screenshot of the train(s) I wanted when making reservations.
  • Using the JR Rail Pass – Easy peasy! Just show it at the manned gate that you’ll see in virtually every Japanese train station (with the possible exception of super small stations) and in you go. If you don’t have a reservation, just look for the non-reserved car location for the train you want to take (this will be marked on the platform and/or on an overhead sign above the platform) and off you go!
  • Bring a small Ziploc bag – The JR Pass is paper so if you’re worried about it getting wet and/or crumpled, just bring a small Ziploc to keep it in.
  • There’s no single metro system in Tokyo and Kyoto
    • Trying to find my way around Tokyo and even much smaller (relatively speaking) Kyoto was overwhelming. So many choices, so much signage (often in 4-5 languages) and rarely a direct option (unless I was only going a short distance, in which case I would just walk anyway). Fares vary based on distance (although there are almost always fare adjustment machines at the other end so if you find yourself short, just pop your ticket into the fare adjustment machine and pay the difference).
    • Part of what makes it confusing is that the subways are operated by separate companies in those two cities (and in others, I would guess) and they don’t necessarily make it easy to travel on both companies’ lines during a single trip. In Tokyo, there are two major companies in the core of the city: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. You can buy a day pass that covers both lines BUT after staring at subway maps a lot and trying to figure out which line belongs to which company, I ended up deciding it wasn’t worth it. I did buy a single day Tokyo Metro pass one day, but otherwise paid for a few individual tickets, and combined that with use of the JR lines.
    • Kyoto is even more confusing (even though there are only two subway lines) thanks to a combination of unusually small signage and very confusing instructions.
    • My advice? Figure out some of your likely destinations and itineraries in advance, and then play around in Google Maps to figure out route options. Look up which lines belong to which company, and compare the various options the mapping program gives, then you’ll have some ideas as to what pass or tickets you’ll need prior to arriving and standing like an idiot in front of the multitudes of signage trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And of course you could always make it simple just by buying whatever the most extensive pass is (e.g., one of the combined passes listed here: http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/ticket/value/1day/) so you don’t have to think (although you’ll still need to figure out how the hell to get there from here).
  • Highway buses – I took a few of these in mountainous areas where there are no or limited trains. They are mostly very nice highway coaches (although I wasn’t on a single one that had a bathroom, which could be a problem on a two-hour bus ride!). Figuring out the schedules was even more challenging than figuring out the subways! There are a lot of companies and no single integrated schedule that I could find. I had my best results just Googling the route (e.g., “bus from matasumoto to shirahone onsen”). Getting a ticket and/or paying the fare is another challenge. A couple of the buses I took required advanced reservations (which I did online) and some required the purchase of a ticket in advance (but not the reservations of an actual seat). On the remainder (the majority), you take a ticket from a machine when boarding. (This is the way city buses work sometimes as well.) A screen at the front of the bus will tell you how much it costs to exit at each stop depending on where you boarded. Just show the driver your ticket and drop your change in the slot and off you go. (And if you don’t have the correct change, most buses have a change making machine next to the far box.)

Food and Drink

I can’t imagine a country with more culinary variety than Japan, nor can I imagine a place where as much care is put into food – whether it’s a street vendor or a high-end restaurant. I did some reading beforehand so I was somewhat prepared (and had already realized that sushi and noodles are but a part of the Japanese food picture), but was still floored by the experience. I can’t begin to give “advice” per se (aside from recommending the book I read, Rice Noodles Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan's Food Culture, noting that the Lonely Planet recommendations were uniformly good, and finding or creating a good list of the various Japanese food groups), but here are the culinary and alcoholic highlights of my trip:

  • Tsujiki Market, sushi breakfast – I highly doubt you can go wrong with any place in this endless warren of vendors peddling a wild variety of seafood. I went with a big selection as I figured it was my chance to try everything at once (and now I know that I need never eat herring roe, squid or prawn in sashimi form again), but I was awfully tempted by the amazing tuna selections.
  • Hitting a famous ramen joint – I saw the queues the first two nights I was in Shinjuku (Tokyo) so on the third night I decided to see what the fuss is all about. It took almost 45 minutes from joining the line to eating, but it was amazing, not just for the food but also the experience of ordering from a machine and sitting at a counter with a screen in front of me from which the food magically appeared with me seeing only the hands of the cooks.
  • Japanese convenience stores – When you see a 7-Eleven in the U.S. or Canada, “gourmet cuisine” is likely NOT your first thought. Convenience stores in Japan, however, are entirely different. You’ll find an incredible selection of good, fresh food, particularly the takeout lunches known as “bento boxes.” I ate the vast majority of my lunches from 7-Eleven, Lawson’s or Family Market (the big three of Japanese convenience stores) and they included everything from rice balls to yakitori, from sushi to soba, and just about everything else you can imagine. And it’s cheap: you can stuff your face for about 500-600 Yen.
  • Visiting a hole-in-the-wall bar or restaurant – There’s nothing like ducking beneath the half curtain that denotes an open establishment (in my case this often involved serious ducking to get inside without brain damage) and finding a tiny place with a low counter facing the bar and/or kitchen, a cozy atmosphere, and the usual great Japanese service. Whether it’s a shanty bar in Golden Gai (Shinjuku), a tiny place (with its own small Zen garden no less) off of a shopping arcade in a (rare) non-touristy area of Kyoto, or a five-seat yakiniku restaurant on Ponto-cho (one of the most atmospheric alleyways I’ve visited), each experience was phenomenal.
  • Grilling your own meat – Speaking of yakiniku, I had two phenomenal experiences of these places where you cook your own meat, a style of food that apparently originated in Korea. One was the above-mentioned hole-in-the-wall in Kyoto where I had ohmi beef (one of the types of Wagyu beef you may have heard of) that I cooked myself on a small electric grill. The other was a type of cooking known as shabu-shabu, which involves choosing a broth style (the order I made included two), then adding vegetables and spices, then cooking your own very thinly sliced meat into it. I ate until I could eat no more!
  • Learning to love saki – I must have tried saki at some point in the past, but I don’t remember it specifically and I do know that the smell alone didn’t appeal to me. That changed in Japan where I tried it several times and quite enjoyed it, particularly the first time when it was served cold in the traditional masu wooden box. (The cup is placed within the masu and then the server pours the saki until it overflows into the box. The traditional meaning of this gesture is to demonstrate the success of the restaurant.)
  • Digging Japanese pancakes in Hiroshima – Okonomiyaki is very similar to crepes in appearance and creation. Two of them are pressed together with all sorts of fillings in between: noodles, egg, tofu, different types of meat. They make them on a huge grill right in front of you and it’s a wonderful experience.
  • Japanese craft beer is developing - It's a long way from the variety and sheer quantity of breweries in the U.S., but craft breweries are popping up, and there are also a number of craft beer bars (e.g., Goodbeer faucets in Kyoto, the Craft Beer Market chain in Tokyo, LBK Craft in Nara, Hop Frog Cafe in Matsumoto).

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Best Albums of 2016: #25-1

#26-50 #51-100 Good albums that didn't make the cut
#25: AuroraAll My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend
A phenomenal debut from Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora Aksnes. This is more in the tradition of orchestral, torch music of Lykke Li than the upbeat pop of Peter, Bjorn and John.
#24: The Hotelier, Goodness
A unique sound, hard to pull off these days without being unlistenable, but The Hotelier does it. Take Goodness Pt. 2: it starts as nothing but a simple strong beat and bassline, but then a simple almost off-rhythm single chord is strummed on a guitar, then equally simple keyboards join in. The whole thing is entirely affecting and propulsive.

#23: Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion
This is one of those bands whose name perfectly captures their sound. I can't even describe how, but when you listen to them, you'll find yourself thinking, "Yeah, that sounds about right." Lead singer Meg Baird's voice is superb, yearning and emotional, and they just grind out the guitar solos. 

#22: pinkshinyultrablast, Grandfeathered
Ringing, chiming, upbeat and ethereal, this is the kind of music that makes you want to blow bubbles and spin around in a meadow somewhere. Very much in the vein of the Bresnard Lakes with a happier vibe.

#21: Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Just plain superb songwriting that creates deeply intimate and authentic portraits of small time life and drama. One of those albums that people who don't like "country" music should listen to!

#20: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree
Never has the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds formula of dark gothic drama sounded fuller or more coherent. 

#19: Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Striking and dramatic, and sounding nothing like Watt's ‘80s/’90s duo Everything But The Girl. It’s a blend of jazz, folk, and rock anchored by solid songwriting and Watt’s subtly emotive voice.

#18: Alicia Keys, Keys
One of several strong artistic statements from women (particularly African-American women) in 2016, this is an organic, fully realized vision combining hip-hop, funk, uptown soul, and R&B with socially and politically aware lyrics broken up by recorded voices from the recording studio and street.

#17: Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
He's still pulling a wide range of influences into a coherent and organic sound, anchored in exceptional songwriting.

#16: Agnes Obel, Citizen of Glass
Another fabulous female singer-songwriter from Scandinavia (Denmark in this case), Agnes Obel's music rides a line between classical piano music, jazz and pop with quiet, moody and emotional results.

#15: Preoccupations, Preoccupations
Formerly (and controversially) known as Viet Cong, the newly renamed Preoccupations produce a type of grinding, goth-influenced industrial rock that dances along the line between fear and paranoia.

#14: Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Fantastic, topical and politically charged lyrics (the first line of the whole album is "It all started with the border and that's still where it is today") matched to classic chiming southern rock 'n' roll.

#13: Mitski, Puberty 2
A kind of dark, murky, grungy torch music. I've never seen her live but I can imagine someone standing on a darkened stage not even moving from the mike.

#12: The Tragically HipMan Machine Poem
I read a review of this album in which the reviewer wrote, "Please don't let this be their last album." He didn't mean this as a compliment. I, sort of, understand the sentiment. Having followed the Hip since their origins (as I documented here), I get the desire so many fans have to see another Fully Completely. But every band needs to move forward, and the Hip tried this for years with mixed results. This album, produced by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene fame, moves the Hip's sound forward in a fascinating way, and points to where they might have (and might still) take their music.

#11: Parquet Court, Human Performance
Crunchy, jagged, jangly punk-pop

#10: Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Gusty independent rock in the tradition of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted

#9: Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes, who records as Blood Orange, has created a masterpiece, a powerful statement about identity - racial and sexual - that appropriately crosses many musical genres: electronica, dance, house, hip hop, funk, soul, R&B, Afro-pop.

#8: Solange, Seat at the Table
A phenomenal artistic statement from the lesser known Knowles sister (the other being Beyoncé, whose albums are just so overproduced, overwritten and generally reek of corporate music that I can't get behind them), a mixture of soul, pop, R&B, gospel, and funk, with interludes of interview segments from her father and mother, and rapper Master P about their experiences.

#7: Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland
Xavier Dphrepaulezz (aka Fantastic Negrito) created the best of a very deep pool of socially and politically consciousness albums (Alicia Keys, Solange, Blood Orange) in 2016. At times angry, uplifting, and observational, it pays homage to many threads in African American music, with a particular emphsis on the blues.

#6: Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
The title track is haunting and repetitive, like a Nick Cave song. The album is a haunting combination of Dylanesque vocals and tension-filled backing instrumentation. Songs often feature slow dramatic builds.

#5: Jenny HvalBlood Bitch
A song cycle about vampires, menstruation and moon cycles? Why not? And I can't imagine anyone other than the Norwegian experimental musician Jenny Hval who could pull this off. 

#4: Bon Iver, 22 Million
In which Justin Vernon 1) goes wild with Auto-Tune and in the process demonstrates that it's not necessarily the most evil device invented; 2) walks even farther away from the "heartbroken hippie locked in a cabin all winter" vibe of For Emma, Forever Ago, and yet 3) somehow pulls back toward it with rapturous harmonies and electronic yet very human sounds. 

#3: David Bowie, Blackstar
I read reviews referring to this as a "free jazz" album but that doesn't begin to cover the range of sounds included in this, Bowie's final artistic statement. Electronica, bass and drums, house, jazz - you name it, it's likely here but it sounds completely unified and organic. The distorted jazzy sax holds several tracks together while Bowie sings in his higher register in a murky and distant manner.

#2: Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Building on his phenomenal, genre-bending Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the Kentucky native turns blues and soul artist on this outing. Impeccable songwriting, terrific horn arrangements, and a gutsy and compelling voice drive this work. Highlights include a soulful cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," the opening track, and the propulsive "Call to Arms."

#1:Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
An incredible work of musical art. From the opening crunch of strings on "Burn the Witch" (a highly relevant song in the current political and social climate) to the piano arpeggio and delicate voice of "Daydreaming" and beyond, this piece works like a post-rock symphony with different movements. That it doesn't scream "Take me seriously" like O.K. Computer makes it even more urgent as a work of art.