Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Karaoke

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

Onigiri

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.


Osaka:
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.


Himeji:
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


video

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.