Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Self Service

I thought I knew how to pump my own gas.

Most gas stations in Japan are full service, so usually all I have to do to fill my tank is hand over my Idemitsu card, smile, and say "hai." But today we happened to pull into a station that was self service. No problem, right? I pump my own gas back home all the time.

First, I tried to find the place to scan my card. There were a bunch of weird screens with Kanji and pictures of a hand, so I stood there trying to flash my card in front of of those, but nothing happened. Finally, I went inside and one of the clerks told me (or really the idea was communicated extra-linguistically) that we had to pump the gas first, then pay. OK. No problem.

So there was a red, a yellow, and a green pump. Everything was written in Japanese, but I noticed that the green pump was the cheapest, so I went with that one. The clerk immediately came on the little speaker and started yelling in Japanese, which sounded to me like "HimmaJimmaJammaWammaBammaBuyThisThing!!!" Then he ran out and stopped the pump. Apparently I had just put 3 liters of diesel into my car.

He said something that we didn't understand and then turned around to go inside. I saw that the red pump said "regyura" in Katakana (I should have looked more closely in the first place) so I took it out. Then the clerk ran out yelling at us again. I guess what he had said earlier was, "You have to pay for the diesel before you can pump the regular!"

We went inside and the clerk harangued us in Japanese for putting diesel into a car that clearly couldn't handle it. He kept asking us, "Why diesel?" (Oh, now you speak English!) And we tried to explain in our hella-broken Japanese that we can't read Japanese (which should have been pretty obvious from the get go). Then he scanned our card and saw that we were from GLC and he got even madder. I guess maybe he knows Mr. Horiguchi.

At this point the clerk thought we were just complete morons. I mean, really, who fucks up pumping their own gas? So he went back outside with us and insisted on pumping the regular himself, which also gave him the opportunity to explain to us in Japanglish that diesel will hurt our car's engine. (Apparently it makes it go "gah chung gah chung")

Finally, our tank was full. We went in and paid and said "arigato gozaimashta" (thank you very much for what you did for us) but he just ignored us. He was pretty pissed at the whole situation.

Epilogue: The next time a foreigner seems like a moron to you, stop and think for a second. Maybe he knows that you can't put diesel into a regular car, but he just can't read English.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fall Matsuri

Last weekend, Kyle and I went the local fall matsuri, or festival, in Maebashi.

Some local festival-goers happily posing for a picture

Kids playing drums on a hand-drawn float

It was similar to the Tanabata festival we blogged about in July in terms of street food, but had 2 pretty cool additions. The first is that people carried mikoshi, or large "portable" shrines installed with a local kami, or a divine spirit, for a jaunt around the neighborhood.

a beer cart following the Mikoshi

mmm... fish on a stick

Second, we were lucky enough to catch a taiko ensemble performing in the street. Taiko literally means "drum" in Japanese, but the word is often used outside of Japan to refer to Japanese-style drums. Apparently (according to wikipedia), these ensembles are a relatively new art form, established in 1951 by a guy named Daihachi Oguchi. As you can see from the very crowded street, they are quite popular (and deservedly so).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cover Your Mouth

So amid all the hubbub back home about whether or not the swine flu vaccine is safe, the Japanese are taking a slightly different tack. Yes, vaccines are available here, and yes many people are choosing to get them, but even before the vaccine there's another line of defense: the face mask.

A couple wearing face masks at Matsuri, the fall festival

Donning a face mask to avoid getting sick is nothing new here, in fact it was a common practice before the swine flu epidemic to combat everything from flu to allergens. Many of my students wear them frequently, and people seem to especially wear them while in large crowds. I also remember many people wearing masks on my flight from Vietnam into Japan back in May when the swine flu epidemic had just begun.

But, there's an even better reason to wear a mask here in Japan than to avoid the flu: to avoid getting other people sick. If you're sick in Japan, you're expected to wear a face mask as a courtesy to others so they don't get sick too. Everyone does it, so it's not as though anyone's going to laugh at you. And it works. The common cold and flu are spread through coming in contact with the secretions of sick people (i.e. viruses people coughed and sneezed into the air or onto their hands, which then get onto sinks, desks, railings, etc.), so it only makes sense that covering up your secretions helps keep others from getting sick.

I've been sick all week, and I'm proud to say that I, too, wore a mask to protect the innocent. It's a really great practice that I think we could adopt back home. So, the next time you're sick and have to go out anyway, try wearing a mask and telling any naysayers it's for their own good. If they really want you to, you could offer to take it off and cough into your hands for them instead. You could be the beginning of a positive new trend.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Koto

After Kyle finished his music teaching gig, we had the privilege of listening to a koto player. The koto is a traditional Japanese stringed instrument that has movable bridges so that you can adjust the pitch. It's a really beautiful instrument, so without further ado, I'll let you listen for yourself.

First he plays an Indian melody, and then if you click the arrow to the next video, you can see him tune it.

I sang in church (but it's not like that)

I sang in church (but it's not like that)

Posted using ShareThis

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Miso Soup

Before I even came to Japan, I loved miso soup and sushi. Miso soup is simple, elegant, warming on a cold day, and delicious. When I got here, I quickly learned to make sushi (there's not much to it really), but I just now got around to learning to make miso soup. In case any of you are fellow lovers of miso soup, I've decided to share the recipe I used from Recipes of Japanese Cooking.

Miso Soup with tofu and wakame

First, make the stock (makes about 3 1/4 cups):

15-20 niboshi, or small dried sardines
3 1/2 c. cold water

1. Pluck off the heads and pinch away the entrails of the dried fish. (Doing this is not as bad as it sounds)
2. Fill a bowl with cold water and add the fish. Let stand for about 30 min.
3. Transfer the liquid and fish into a pot and place over medium heat. When the liquid begins to boil, turn down the heat to low immediately. Skim any foam off the surface.
4. After simmering over low heat for 5-10 minutes, strain the stock into a bowl through a paper towel placed in a mesh sieve.

Second, make the soup (serves 2):

1/2 cake of silken tofu cut into small cubes
2/3 oz. wakame seaweed reconstituted (let about 2 pinches of the dried stuff sit in cold water for about 30 min)
about an inch of naga-negi onion (if you can't find it, use green onion), sliced
1 2/3 c. stock
2 tbsp. miso

1. Cut the seaweed into bite-sized pieces if necessary.
2. Pour stock into a pan, and bring to a boil over medium heat.
3. Add tofu and seaweed and remove from the heat before it comes to a boil again.
4. Gradually add the miso using a ladle with a little stock in it to soften the miso, and then let it dissolve into the soup.
5. Top with the onions, ladle into bowls, and serve.

Suggested variations of miso soup ingredients (instead of wakame and tofu):

1. freshwater clams
2. tofu (cut into large squares) and shiitake mushrooms (sliced)
3. potato (cut into rounds) and wakame seaweed
4. spinach and deep-fried tofu (cut into strips)
5. tofu (cut into strips) and nameko mushroom
6. turnip (wedges) and deep-fried tofu (strips)
7. eggplant (half moons), tofu (squares), and deep-fried tofu (strips)
8. cabbage (squares) and deep-fried tofu (strips)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Karaoke is a little bit different in Japan.

The place is called Maneki Neko, which means "good-luck smiling and waving cat"

A karaoke bar is not so much a bar as it is a huge warehouse with a bunch of private rooms. You go with a group of friends and get your own little 10'x15' room with two microphones, a plasma screen, and an amazing sound-system with a badass echo built into the vocals. There are a couple of bonuses to the private rooms: you don't have to sing in front of strangers and you don't have to wait a long time before it's your turn again.

You compete against a robot and you know that you're winning if your word bubble is smiling and his is crying.

Like most drinking establishments in Japan, you order your drinks not from a waiter, but from a little remote control. Just punch in the right code and a minute later someone shows up with a beer, a tiny bottle of sake, or even a bowl of ramen.

The biggest difference, though, is that in Japan karaoke is serious business. The get-as-drunk-as-you-can-and-make-a-total-ass-of-yourself-in-public vibe doesn't really exist here. You won't find two guys singing "I Got You Babe" bromantically to each other. You sing karaoke because you like to sing and singing is fun, not because you want everyone to laugh at how bad you are.

You can see the full story at our YouTube page.

That said, it's still good fun. No one really cares how well you sing, just that you sing your best and have fun doing it.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Kyle and I have quickly come to love onigiri, or rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed. They are delicious, nutritious, and extremely portable. We use them in packed lunches, or grab some pre-made from anywhere (the grocery store, 711, you name it) when we're hungry and in a rush. Since they make the perfect on-the-go-health-food, I thought I'd share the basic recipe with you.

An onigiri shop in the Himeji train station

To start, you'll first need to make rice. But not just any rice, it should be Japanese rice, or japonica, which is a short grain rice that is much stickier than American long grain rice. The stickiness is important, because without it, your onigiri will fall apart. Fret not, it should be available in most well-stocked grocery stores and is also very versatile- you can eat it with just about anything as an easy side. I actually like it better than the long-grain version.

Once your rice is made, you'll only need a few other things: a bowl of water, sea salt, small bowls, a filling (more to come), and nori wrappers. Any size wrapper will do, it's all preference. The smaller ones are a little easier to work with.

First, put a small handful of rice into the bowls. Be aware that if you use it straight from the pot/rice maker, it'll be really hot. I usually give it about 5 minutes in the fridge to make it manageable.

Next, make an indentation in the center of the rice, pushing about halfway into it. Add a small amount of your filling of choice.

This is brown rice and tuna

Next, use the water to wet your hands. Sprinkle them with the salt. Slide the rice out of the bowl and into your hands. Use your palms and thumbs to close the rice over the filling, so that it ends up in the center.

Lightly pack the rice into a ball shape, or if you like, you can make a more traditional triangle by using the area between your thumb and forefinger to pinch a corner, rotating the rice to make all 3 corners.

The brown rice wasn't as sticky as the white, so I couldn't make a triangle in this batch

Then, wrap it with a piece of nori. Either cover the onigiri with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for later, or enjoy it right away. You could eat it warm or cold, but it's usually eaten cold.

Mine aren't quite as pretty as the store-bought ones, but they still taste good

As for the filling, the Japanese usually use chum salmon, pickled plums, pickled kombu seaweed, salted cod roe, salmon roe, and other pickled stuff I've never even heard of. Since I'm not Japanese, I either eat the chum salmon or the pickled seaweed ones, since those are pretty good. The others don't really tickle my fancy. When I make them at home, I use canned tuna because it's easy and tastes pretty good. Feel free to use whatever you want. I hypothesize that gingered carrots would be good, or any kind of fish really. Or chicken, if that's your thing. I mean, it's mostly rice, so anything tastes good in there.

A half-eaten salmon onigiri from 711

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Never say "Happy Obon" in Japanese

Horiguchi san (my boss) informed me that you don't say anything like "Happy Obon" in Japanese because Obon is a Buddhist death ceremony. Regardless, we got a week off of work for it and we traveled to Osaka, Kyoto, Himeji, and Miyogi san. So it was a happy Obon after all.

This is the first thing we did in Osaka. (That's our friend and Osaka-host Kazuyo.)

It really looks like this.

Throw water at the mossy Buddha to help him grow.

Rub Billiken's feet for good luck.

Kinkakuji: the golden temple.

Grooming the zen garden at Ginkakuji.

Ginkakuji: the silver temple.

Ryozen Kannon: the Japanese tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWII.

The view from one of the upper floors of the castle. That weird gargoyle thing is a fish.

Himeji Castle has lots of floors.

A dragonfly in the Himeji imperial gardens.
Mountains are referred to as "san" in Japanese. Example: Fuji san = Mt. Fuji. "San" also means "Mr." So, Myogi san is kind of like saying "Mr. Myogi." So it's like I met Mr. Myogi and he didn't even trick me into painting his fence. Awesome.

A small part of Myogi san.

Christin ingratiating herself to the locals.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gochisōsamadeshita ごちそぅさまでした (said after eating a meal)

Right now in Japan it's Obon, a summer holiday to honor the spirits of your ancestors, and we have a week long break from work. We were lucky enough to have an invitation from a friend and former student, Kazuyo, to stay with her family in Osaka and we took her up on it.

We stayed 2 super-comfortable nights with them while we visited Osaka, Kyoto, and Himeji castle. They were by far the most accommodating and gracious hosts we've ever had. They put us up in a small apartment on the first floor of their home, and showed us the true meaning of Japanese hospitality.

Kazuyo and her family: Hiroshi-san, Kazuyo, and Miyoko-san

Each night when we returned from sightseeing, Kazuyo would draw us a bath and then Kazuyo's mother laid before us the most intricate and delicious of Japanese feasts. There were so many small delicious dishes that we wondered how she even fit it on the table. We drank sake and Kirin to our heart's content and asked and answered each other's cultural curiosities through our faithful translator Kazuyo (whose English is sounding great by the way!). We were surprised to learn that we were the first foreigners her parents had ever talked to, so I hope we left a good impression.

Miyoko-san and one of her beautiful Japanese breakfasts

Then in the morning, we would awake to yet another feast before we were ushered to the train station with maps and information galore stuffed into our hands. On the second evening, Kazuyo's mother even dressed us in yukata, traditional Japanese summer kimonos.

They made Kyle really happy by telling him he looks like a real samurai

We had such a fun time with them. Domo arigato gozaimasu again to Kazuyo and her family for an authentic Japanese experience and their generous hospitality. We were so comfortable that we slept right through an early-morning earthquake.

Eulogy for Yoshimi

We returned from our 3 day trip to Osaka to find that our hamster Yoshimi had died. (She was being cared for. This is not a case of neglect.)

We'll probably never know the exact cause of her death, but I do know that her body looked peaceful, which makes me hope that she didn't suffer too much.

It's been a rough summer for small mammals on the second floor of Purunie. We have the beginnings of a small pet cemetery in the back yard.

She would eat from Christin's hand in Christin's hand.

Goodbye Yoshimi. It seems that I was so sure that you would protect me from the pink robots that I forgot that they might actually eat you too.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Carrots and Green Beans

A Thousand Paper Cranes

I was recently reintroduced to an old Japanese custom, Senbazuru, when Heidi asked us at last week's meeting to fold 2 origami cranes each. Senbazuru is a tradition of folding a thousand paper cranes to give to someone as a powerful good luck charm. The cranes are strung together and usually hung outdoors, where they release their wish as they become tattered in the elements. In this case, the cranes are intended as a wellness charm for a cancer patient, who will hopefully benefit from the well wishes of those who helped fold the cranes.

A finished Senbazuru

The custom was made famous as a peace symbol through Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a true children's story about an atom bomb victim who tries to fold a thousand paper cranes so that she might be granted one wish (to live), but who dies of lukemia after only finishing 644.

Yoko and Khris folding cranes in the teacher's room

Cranes are considered very auspicious in Japan, and are said to live for 1,000 years. If you want to give folding an origami crane a shot, follow the instructions here. It's not so hard.

See? Even I can do it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Turn left at Wonder Goo

In Japan they don't name their roads. Some of them have numbers like "route 17", but they don't like to use them. It just makes the road seem too impersonal.

This makes it hard to get directions if you want to drive anywhere.

Most Japanese people know how to get somewhere, but they couldn't tell you how (even if they are capable of explaining it in English). Usually you will either get "It's near 7-11" or a hand drawn map that looks like this:

My boss drew this for me so I could get to a teaching job that was an hour away. Mister Donut is at the top left.

They are pretty good with landmarks, however. For example:

"Turn right at Mister Donut."

"Turn left at Wonder Goo."

They do name their intersections. But nobody remembers them. And don't bother consulting a map, because they're all written in Kanji (the most complicated of the three Japanese alphabets). So my advice is to either stay where you are or memorize where all the 7-11s in Japan are.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009


Last weekend Christin and I went to the Tanabata festival in Maebashi.

Lots of girls were wearing these traditional dresses.

Tanabata is a star festival that originated in China. It comes from a legend of two celestial lovers that could only be together once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Those are pigs made out of styrofoam bowls hanging from the trees.

We basically just ate a bunch of Japanese festival food. Some of it was pretty standard -- chocolate covered bananas and tornado potatoes -- and some was extremely Japanese, like the BBQ sauce covered shrimp balls that were filled with gooey liquid and octopus tentacles.

Where's Gaijin?

As we were leaving we saw this guy selling peaches. Totally worthy of a Japanese infomercial.

He actually sold a ridiculous amount of peaches this way. We bought some.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Caspian Sea Yogurt

My latest favorite thing is my Caspian Sea Yogurt, which I got from a friend and colleague, Heidi. It's name references the fact that a researcher, Yukio Yamori, professor emeritus of pathology at Kyoto University, brought it back from Georgia where he was researching longevity. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since Georgia actually borders the Black Sea, not the Caspian Sea, but who's really checking. It was a big craze here in Japan about 6 years ago, and apparently it's still getting passed around.

Just add milk

The cool thing about the yogurt is that I get to make it myself. Heidi gave us a starter, which was about an inch of some of her yogurt at the bottom of a jar, and we just add milk, cover with a tissue, leave it on the counter, and wait 10-15 hours. Voila! Homemade yogurt. Whenever we get low, we just add more milk and wait.

The yogurt itself is mild and extremely viscous, making it somewhat akin to eating slimy milky boogers (in a delicious way of course). It's only a little sour, but I'm a sour wimp so I add honey or fruit when I eat it anyway.

See how slimy? It just runs right off the spoon.

It purports to have a variety of health benefits, including supplying high quality protein and calcium, increasing the body's beneficial intestinal flora, helping the the body digest proteins and glucides, and helping the body absorb vitamins B and K. Lastly, it's unique viscosity helps intestinal health by acting like dietary fibers.

Mmm.. sweet booger milk, here I come.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Her Name is Yoshimi...

Yesterday we bought a hamster. Her name is Yoshimi. She's still really tiny and afraid of us. She would easily fit in the palm of Christin's hand if she would let us pick her up.

Right now the most popular place in the apartment is right in front of the hamster cage.

She wants to poop everywhere except her little toilet box, so we have to constantly pick up tiny little turds with a pair of tweezers and drop them in there. We think it's the only way she'll learn.

Yoshimi discovers how to get food out of the box

...and finds her favorite place to hang out

Like with most babies (and everybody else if we're honest), the most interesting thing about her right now is her poop. I'll let you know if other things about her become interesting.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Horse Ninjas are Here to Protect You

In Japan, all official messages are communicated on signs through cute cartoon characters. Allow me to translate a few for you...

Don't cross this fence! It's unsafe!

Don't eat the ice! It may hurt your teeth!

Bags of poop make little girls and dogs super happy fun!

It is the duty of police and ninjas who are horses to protect you! Have a nice day!

Digging up phone lines with evil bulldozers makes telephones cry! Exercise caution!