Saturday, September 30, 2006


I spent a lesson this evening talking to my only male student about a golf driving range he goes to. When trying to remember the name of the place, he rummaged around in his bag and pulled out the pen with a little golf ball on it that you see above. In Japan, these things are called "presents" but it is called swag in the U.S. For those who don't know, swag refers to the freebie stuff you get in promotions. Supposedly, it is called that because it refers to "stuff we all get" but I think it's more about coining pirate talk. ;-)

One thing I loved about going to MacWorld expos was collecting swag. Unfortunately, the MacWorld expos I attended were in Japan and the swag often consisted of items I couldn't use like CDs or floppy disks full of Japanese software. Also, after a few expos, the quality and amount of swag really seemed to drop.

Fortunately, one of our friends continued to attend MacWorld expos for awhile after we stopped and she used to send me boxes of swag she collected for me. Among the items she sent me was the bag pictured above. Since I'm an Adobe fan, I was especially keen on this item and I've had it for a number of years, as you can see by the version numbers of the software advertised on the bag.

Despite the fact that swag is free and is essentially advertising, a lot of people really like it. In fact, some people like it so much that they'll pay for it. There's a swag subscription service in California called Valley Schwag which will send you a package once a month of swag from various conventions and whatnot. It's mainly geared toward geeks who want to show off in super cool swag that makes people think they're with the in crowd technologically.

Friday, September 29, 2006

My Demon Phone

Evil comes in many forms

Quite some time ago, my husband and I bought a phone with a digital answering machine and a cordless handset. At the time, phones with internal answering machines weren't quite as common as they are now.

Unfortunately, this phone seems to have been possessed by some sort of demon that makes it let out a loud, obnoxious "door phone" tone at random intervals. When I say loud and obnoxious, I really mean it. I can't imagine who designed the noise that this thing puts out but I hope he lost his job or was assigned to another section.

The worst thing about this is that the malfunction is part of the phone's functionality. It apparently can be hooked up to your doorbell so it goes off when someone rings it. I'm not sure what this idiotic function is for since it essentially duplicates the doorbell's function (and does not usurp it). I can only imagine that it's for the many, many Japanese people living in such overly spacious and cavernous dwellings that they need to place a phone in another part of their home to hear that a Jehovah's Witness or newspaper salesman has rang the far distant doorbell.

The only way to stop this horrific noise from going off is to unplug the phone from its power source. If I do that, we can't use the answering machine or dial outgoing calls. We can only accept incoming calls. That's some nice design. We've inspected the manual and tried to push the "doa hon" button off and on to no avail. Our actions appear to have no effect on it's random bellowing.

If we can't get our hands on a techno-exorcist, I guess we'll have to pop for a new phone. And we'll make sure that no door phone button appears anywhere on the beast.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

They Still Confuse Me

After having lived in Japan for 17+ years, Japanese people still confuse me. I try very hard to figure out their take on things and see things from their perspective but some things still take me by surprise.

Today, a repairman came to fix the bathroom door which stopped closing after our kitchen floor had been replaced. He was here for about 6 hours ripping up part of the floor again, moving our washing machine and trying to work out how to get the door to close. There was a lot of hammering, drilling, and all our stuff once again was put in the middle of the floor. It was a hassle but sometimes you have to put up with the bad for the future good and it certainly was no one's fault that we were inconvenienced.

Our landlord and his wife coordinated all the repair as well as paid for it. They took time out of their day to come over and check repeatedly with the repairman as well as communicate with him and us about what was happening. During all this time, they profusely apologized for putting us out. When it was all said and done, and after many more apologies, they gave us a gift. The fairly expensive-looking bottle of red wine pictured above was given to us, apparently to apologize for any way in which we might have been bothered by the floor replacement and subsequent repair.

Unfortunately, we discovered last night that the door still hasn't been properly repaired and we'll have to go another round with the servicepeople. It closes completely now but pops open constantly. :-p I wonder if we'll warrant another gift after all this.

In the U.S., I'm guessing apologizing for any inconvenience a tenant suffers as the landlord repairs something would be unheard of, let alone offering a gift at the end. Most U.S. landlords probably feel they were doing you a big enough favor just by paying for extensive repair. Of course, it's possible that my landlords are just unusually nice people and this atypical even by Japanese standards.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Shopping for English Books

One thing I realized about my blogging is that I need to get into the habit of taking my camera with me every time I leave the house. Unfortunately, I haven't progressed from having the thought to performing the action. Until I do, I'm not going to show much more than static "result" shots.

Anyway, today, my husband and I made a trip to the best used book shop in Tokyo, Good Day Books. The main reason for us doing this was that we have about 50 books that I wanted to get rid of. We couldn't take them all at once but we loaded up our backpacks and headed to Ebisu. At Good Day Books, they will give you store credit for books you bring in though they won't accept just any book. In fact, they didn't take about 1/3 of the books we brought in because they already had them or they deemed them "too old". They will keep books you bring in that they won't accept but they won't give you credit for them so you don't have to lug them home if you don't want to.

If you have credit, you can buy used books for 100% credit. The only cash you have to pay is the sales tax. Used books without credit sell for relatively reasonable prices. I don't know what formula they use but the only book I bought which was not a textbook was Adaptation and Human Behavior which sells for $35.95 new on Amazon and the price at Good Day Books was 2,100 yen. Considering the mark-up on English books at new book shops like Kinokuniya and the fact that this book costs 4,841 yen on Amazon Japan, it's a pretty good deal. Books don't exactly suffer much of a drop in utility if they're used.

If you want to buy new books, you can ask them to order titles for you and use 20% of your credit toward the purchase price though I don't know what they charge for the exchange rate so it may or may not be a bargain. You can request that they look out for specific titles using a form on their web site if you want them to keep an eye out for a used copy. Since you aren't obliged to buy books you request, there's no harm in asking.

We weren't all that interested in acquiring more new books as we already have too many but we did want to investigate getting some teaching materials for my private lessons as well as for my husband to use at the school he works at. His school allows teachers to use any materials they like and has a rather limited library. Getting the books on credit is a bit like getting them free so we don't have to spend our cash on materials we're not being reimbursed for. It's more of an opportunity lost to buy other books in the future. Since the credit slips have an expiration date, we'd probably have to make an effort to use them up at some point if we didn't use them on texts.

It was a pretty nice time out because the weather was pleasant and there are places to sit outside of Ebisu station at the exit near the store. There are very limited amounts of public seating around Tokyo so we took advantage of the chance to hang out and have some Subway after shopping. Since it was breezy, the smokers were a lot less of a problem than usual which was a bonus.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls can be easily purchased at many Japanese bakeries in Tokyo. There's only one problem. They're pretty terrible. For the most part, they're dried out and lacking in both cinnamon and sugar flavor. If they're glazed, they are iced with what tastes like a part yogurt or part cream cheese frosting which can be somewhat sour, rubbery or high in fat and low in sugar.

My husband has told me that there are a few Cinnabon shops around Tokyo though I've never been to one or seen one myself. A web search reveals that there are at least a few in central Tokyo (Kichijoji and Ikebukuro, to name a few places). Part of the reason why I don't know where they are is that I actually don't like cinnamon rolls all that much and part of it is he gets around Tokyo more than I. My husband loves cinnamon rolls but he tries to avoid sugar. About once a year though, he does indulge.

Even though I don't like to eat them, I do like to make them and since my husband had a taste for some yesterday, I made a batch. There's something very satisfying about both dealing with the yeast-risen dough and making the pinwheels. The recipe I use is a modified orange rolls recipe:


1 T. dry yeast softened in 1/4 cup lukewarm water for 5-15 minutes
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter cut into small pieces
1/4 cup scalded milk + 2 T. cold milk
1 large egg
3/4 t. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

In a mixing bowl, whisk sugar, butter, salt and scalded milk. Cool then add egg, 2 T. cold milk and yeast mixture. Gradually add the flour until it forms a stiff dough. You may need a little more or less than 2 cups. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is smooth and satiny (about 3-5 minutes). Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for about an hour in a warm place. The dough should double in size.

After it has risen, divide the dough in half (use a knife to cut it). Roll out thinly (about the thickness of a tortilla) into a long rectangular shape. Spread filling (see below) over the dough. Roll up lengthwise and cut into pinwheels slightly smaller than the height of the pan you'll be baking in.

Place the about 9 pinwheels in a 9" square pan or 12 in a 9" x 12" pan. There should be about 1-2 inches between each. Cover each pan with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for an hour or two. The dough should rise enough such that the rolls nearly touch each other in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. or 175 degrees C. Remove the plastic wrap from the rolls and bake for between 20 and 30 minutes until the tops are golden. Be careful not to overbake them or the filling will get hard and the bread will dry out. Baking time is affected by the size and type of pan. Shallow, thinner pans need less time than deeper, thicker pans. Glaze if desired.


1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
4 T. cinnamon

Cream the ingredients together and set aside. Soften the butter if necessary to make it spreadable but do not melt it!


1/2 cup powdered sugar
dash of vanilla essence
1-2 T. whole milk

This recipe makes rolls that are very light and tender. They are much less heavy and bread-like than most cinnamon rolls. They also have a very strong cinnamon element so you may want to reduce the amount of cinnamon in the filling if you like a more subdued flavor.

The rolls also freeze well though it's better if you freeze them without icing and glaze them after they've thawed. Usually, I end up freezing at least half of them since my husband can't eat them quickly enough.

They smell great and are lovely to wake up to, even if you don't eat them. ;-)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Impact of Irritability

During one of my private lessons today, a student told me that I was the only American who had ever been nice to her. This came as a suprise to me because her interactions with Americans have generally been in situations where she was a student and should have been treated well.

When she related her experiences to me, I can't say that I was entirely shocked by them as I'd witnessed or overheard teachers behaving in the ways she mentioned. She told me that, 20 years ago, she went to one of the chain language schools and at first had a Japanese teacher of English and a group lesson. While she was happy with the Japanese teacher, she had to move and decided to rapidly spend more lesson "tickets" by taking private lessons from a foreign teacher.

For those not living in Japan, a lot of the large chain language schools sell large numbers of tickets which students can spend on different types of lessons. A lesson with a Japanese teacher might cost 3 tickets and a lesson with a foreign teacher 5 tickets. Spending time in a conversation lounge might cost only 2 tickets. The idea is to allow the student flexibility in how they study and to have them pay proportionally more for the more expensive instruction.

The teacher my student ended up with was an American woman who got angry with her when she didn't speak quickly enough and generally intimidated her. As a result, she decided to give up on the rest of her lessons and stop going to the school. When I asked her why she didn't complain, she said she was afraid of the teacher but also that it just wasn't the sort of thing she'd do. That part didn't surprise me because she's pretty timid and shy. I felt pretty bad for her because she was put off of English study for the next 20 years, lost her money, and was treated with anger and impatience for her limited language skills.

After a long absence, she took another group lesson with an American man as a teacher. There were 13 students and, while she didn't have any seriously bad experiences, she also didn't find that she received enough attention to improve her English. Most of the lesson was spent with the students speaking to each other. This wasn't really the teacher's fault though as it's a common way to give everyone the maxiumum chance to speak in large groups.

When I worked at Nova, teachers often got fed up with students and sometimes for what could arguably be called a "good reason". For example, sometimes students wouldn't pay attention to the teacher and would titter and carry on rudely. Of course, this was generally because they were nervous and uncomfortable but it was still disruptive and inappropriate. Sometimes getting overtly irritated was the only way to get them to settle down and respect the teacher's authority. Additionally, despite the reputation Japanese people have for being polite, students were capable of being intentionally rude. This didn't happen often, but it did happen.

However, it was more often the case that the teacher's frustration was simply a byproduct of being tired, overworked, and unhappy with the tedium. With the intense teaching schedule, almost no preparation time, limited textbook options, and the exhaustion of dealing with passive students day after day, coupled with the fact that most Nova teachers were inexperienced and young, getting annoyed at students on occasion was inevitable.The fast food nature of the language instruction and there being zero recognition of high quality teachers meant that even the most dedictated types would lose their zest for teaching.

Nonetheless, there's no excuse for taking any of that out on the students. It's not their fault that the teachers aren't happy with their lot.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Origin of DDD Sale DVDs

Previously, I recommended that anyone who buys DVDs sign up for Deep Discount DVD's (DDD) promotional e-mail messages so they can catch the sales. My second shipment from a recent order provided some insight into what motivates those sales. One of my boxes came with a Wal-Mart price sticker on it. So, I'm guessing that the sales are offered when DDD gets a load of titles that didn't sell well enough at stores or were overstocked. This also explains why their regular prices are generally on par with Amazon's. They're only super cheap when they're part of one of these returns.

On a side note, I thought Wal-Mart was supposed to be pretty cheap but $26.64 for a season of 3rd Rock doesn't seem particularly cheap, especially when Amazon sells it for $21.99. I've never been to a Wal-Mart in the U.S. and the way in which Wal-Mart does business in Japan is a completely different model. They work through a controlling interest in Seiyu which offers only sporadic discounts rather than "everyday low prices" as they do in the U.S. However, given what I've read about Wal-Mart's treatment of employees, I'd do my level best to avoid patronizing them.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Learning to Love the Dock

I'm a dual-platform user though I started as a Mac user and still am fond of the Mac over Windows. However, when OS X arrived and started becoming more like Windows, I lost a lot of my fervor for the Mac because the line between which was better started to blur for me.

I know this is a huge point of contention for Mac users and I'm inviting argument by asserting Mac OS X has become more Windows-like but you can't deny that a lot of the changes on the Mac since OS 9 have been geared toward making it more Windows-user-friendly. For example, non-contiguous Mac selection used to be made with the shift key and now it requires the command key just as Windows requires thecontrol key. The Mac also now has the same infuriating shut down confirmation dialog box that Windows has...treating the user as if he or she were such a nitwit lacking in manual dexterity that he or she often selected "shutdown" by accident day-in and day-out.

Anyway, one of the biggest Windows rip-offs that I've disliked has been the dock. That is, I disliked it up until I connected my Mini to the T.V. All of a sudden, the dock looks a lot better than the taskbar.

On the computer screen, you can see everything clearly but, on the T.V. screen, it's pretty blurry, or at least it is on my old T.V. Since the dock can be made larger and provides a launching point for all applications, it makes things easier to see on television.

Additionally, one of the most annoying effects of the dock on a computer screen suddenly became useful on T.V. The bulging magnification effect helps a lot on the T.V. screen because you can follow the cursor's progress across the dock much more easily as well as drag files on top of an application's icon with greater ease.

I'm pretty sure Apple didn't have how the screen looked on television in mind when they designed the dock but I'm rather glad to finally find that the dock can beat the taskbar functionally in some cases.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

You Are Where You Live

One of the reasons I was so glad to have my kitchen floor replaced was that I had always felt somewhat uncomfortable having students come over and see it. They didn't seem to care much and seemed to be able to distinguish between "old" and "dirty" and I don't think my apartment has ever cost me anyone. After discussing apartments with one of my students, I can say that at least one teacher was not so lucky.

We chatted a bit about the landlord-tenant relationship in my case and whether or not I had to pay for the replacement (I didn't) and somehow this lead to her mentioning a situation with the first teacher the referral service sent her to. She prefers to drive her car to lessons and checked out the area he lived in for parking possibilities. Apparently, the teacher was residing in a gaijin house that, at least externally, looked pretty rundown. In fact, she said that she was shocked by how it looked as she didn't even realize such places existed.

However, she didn't reject the teacher entirely because of the way things looked. She's a very nice person and didn't want to judge based on the place he lived in though the area did make her uncomfortable. The other issue was that he claimed to have held a job at a fairly prestigious place and she doubted the veracity of what he said based on where he lived. She couldn't imagine anyone who held such a job would live in such a place.

I did explain to her that foreigners in Japan have limited housing options relative to most Japanese, particularly when they first arrive because of the need to put forward as much as 6 months rent right off the bat. The only reason we were able to get the place we did is my brother-in-law, who was already living here, secured it for us and loaned us the money to get it when we first arrived. A lot of people have few choices but to live in gaijin houses until their finances get rolling good and strong. It also doesn't help that foreigners still are not acceptable to most landlords.

She said she may have misunderstood the situation when I explained this to her. There's no reason why she should understand it but it does shine a spotlight on how many Japanese people don't realize the hardships foreigners sometimes have to put up with while working here. However, I'm pretty sure that the fellow couldn't have been working full-time at the place he mentioned (not that he claimed he did) or he certainly wouldn't have been in a gaijin house. If I were in that situation, I'd probably arrange to teach lessons at a coffee shop until I could move somewhere a bit better.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My New Kitchen Floor

Beautiful wood-look linoleum

Starting from 9:00 am yesterday, workmen installed a much-needed new floor in my kitchen. The day before, I had removed a kitchen cabinet and the trolley as well as taken all the dishes and food out of a huge shelf. It was quite a lot of effort.

The landlord said the people who were installing the floor would move everything for us but there was a deadline and I didn't trust them not to break my dishes or to move furniture in such a way as to block access to our bathroom. We weren't going to be able to go all day without using the toilet.

As it turned out, they didn't finish until 7:30 pm. If they had had to move all my dishes and sundry items out of and back into the shelves, they wouldn't have finished until 9:00 or 10:00 pm so I'm glad I did part of it myself. There's no way they would have been as aggressive as me or as slapdash but I had confidence in what I was doing and didn't have to handle things with kid gloves. I carefully stacked everything in laundry baskets with little or no padding. Nothing broke so it worked out alright.

Here is the progression that led up to the final results pictured above.

Original floor with wear and damage.

The weak spots have been cut out and a few extra supports have been added in. You can see the weak spots correspond to where some of the linoleum was cracking in long ridges. One rather shocking thing I discovered was that the boards that comprise the floor are rather pathetically thin and resemble 3/4 inch plywood rather than sturdy support beams. It's no wonder they started to sag in spots where one stood for long periods of time or was forced to step repeatedly. The weakest spots were right in front of the bathroom door, in front of the stove, and in front of the front door.

You can see a few support beams have been installed in the gaps (they're the light, slender beams running horizontally) and some of the old linoleum has been scraped up. You can also see how immensely gappy the support boards under the floor are, particularly right in front of the front door. There is little to support the thin boards for spans of about 2.5-3 feet horizontally and 1.5 feet vertically.

It's rather interesting to watch how they manage to do this while still leaving the refrigerator and a large shelf in place. You can see how the workmen are well-practiced at dealing with small spaces and moving things around as needed without damaging the work they do.

The only unfortunate off-shoot of this was that the shower door now will not fully close. The workmen neglected to replace some screws (which they removed) holding a metal brace for the door in place and I wonder if that's related to this new problem. It is supposed to close tight to keep a decent seal so it doesn't leak out and rot the floor. It never did have a completely good seal but now it actually has a gap in the middle. That's especially bad with a new floor in place because it'll greatly shorten the lifespan. So, we had to go to the landlord and let him know so the workmen can be called back to fix it up.

I'm very pleased though with how much better the kitchen looks now and am thinking now of replacing my living room carpet despite the hassle it'll be. My ancient, crumbling apartment looks a lot better with newer flooring alone so I'll be doing some research and serious thinking about it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Better Bread

One of the comforts of home which you can easily manage in Japan is making your own bread. Since the bread in Japan is almost uniformly white, soft and distinctly Wonderbread-like, you can have much healthier fare by using a bread machine.

Bread machines are pretty easy to buy and fairly reasonably priced. The Japanese call it a "home bakery" (ホームベーカリー). The cheaper models are around 7,000 yen. A typical one can be seen here on Amazon Japan. Since they're not all that complicated to use, it's easy to work out how to manage one even if you don't read much Japanese.

My husband and I actually have an Oster bread machine made for the U.S. market that we picked up at Costco about 5 years ago. Since that time, Costco has stopped selling U.S. models and only carry Japanese ones. The main differences between Japanese machines and U.S. machines appears to be the size of the bread pan, which is smaller in Japan, and the way in which yeast is added to the bread. Our machine is a bit old so the yeast-adding aspect may have changed for U.S. models but ours instructs you to make a well in the dry ingredients and put the yeast on top. Japanese machines have a separate little basket for adding yeast that keeps it safely separate from the other ingredients when you're setting bread up on a timer (so you can wake up to fresh bread).

I prefer whole grain or multigrain bread and you can buy whole wheat flour and oatmeal at Japanese markets. However, if you're making your own bread regularly, it's far more economical to get grains in relative bulk from Tengu Natural Foods. Tengu sells a variety of grains you can't easily locate elsewhere such as flax, coarse wheat flour (graham flour), kamut flour, and quinoa. You can download a catalog from their site. When you order, they send an invoice and you pay afterwards from a convenience store so you don't even need a credit card.

Costco sells white bread flour at moderately lower prices than local stores but it's not really enough to make it worthwhile. However, oatmeal is greatly less expensive at Costco though you do have to buy a huge amount.

You can make any recipe you like in a bread machine but if you don't have any in particular, you might want to check out It allows you to automatically scale the quantities on the fly so you can make smaller loaves in your Japanese machine.

One of my favorite recipes from for the bread machine is Torrejon Oatmeal Bread. I modified it because I wanted it to include more whole grain. Here's the recipe I use:

1 cup + 2 tbsp. water
1 cup oatmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 cup + 1 tbsp. whole wheat flour
1 cup + 1 tbsp. bread flour
2-4 tbsp. brown sugar (1 tbsp. is necessary for the yeast, the rest is for flavor enhancement)
1 tbsp. canola oil
11/2 tsp. dry yeast

Place wet ingredients in the bread pan then dry (saving yeast for last). Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and place yeast in it. Choose crust color and bake at the "basic" setting.

The addition of whole wheat flour causes the bread not to rise as much and makes for a denser loaf. It also lends better flavor to the bread. You could make it with all whole wheat flour or solely with white bread flour.

This bread makes excellent plain or buttered toast and french bread.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Japan Has 4 Seasons

Any time the topic of the weather is initially broached with students, they will earnestly tell you "Japan has 4 seasons." They tell you this as if this is a unique and wondrous situation which you, wherever you happen to have come from, probably have not experienced.

I'm puzzled as to where this misperception that Japan is a rare example of a country with 4 distinct seasonal patterns comes from for a couple of reasons. First of all, Japan is a small country but it's rather long and the weather is not uniformly similar from the north to the south. Hokkaido has rather different weather than Tokyo or Hiroshima so you can't really talk about the weather of Japan as if it were all the same.

Where I grew up (Pennsylvania), we actually did have 4 distinct weather patterns in each season. In fact, we had the kind of seasonal weather that you see illustrated on Christmas tins, greeting cards, and books to give one a feel for each season. Winter is cold and snowy. Spring is warm, rainy at times, and sees flowers open up. Summer is hot. Autumn is cool, windy and full of colorful leaves. That's 4 distinct seasons.

If Tokyo has 4 seasons, they are fall, rainy season, summer, and typhoon season. The winter is incredibly mild and usually sees no more than 4 days of small amounts of snow, if that. The summer is very long and usually uncomfortably humid. Spring and fall, if you gauge them by the weather and not the calendar, last about 2 weeks each. Right now, we're in the throes of typhoon season.

During this time, the weather changes rather dramatically as the typhoons pull either hot or cold air into the area. Today is 7 degrees warmer than yesterday. Last week during the previous typhoon, the weather dropped about 10 degrees when a typhoon blew in.

One thing we see happen as a result of the intense humidity during the rainy season and typhoon seasons is the paper on the doors between the living room and bedroom ripples and bubbles up from the humidity (normally, the paper is smooth). The picture at the top shows the effect. I'm pretty sure that this probably isn't good for (cheap) building materials and contributes to some of the general deterioration you see after a short time in an apartment.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Japanese Manners & the Local Gaijin

I've often been told that the Japanese don't expect foreigners to understand or display Japanese manners while they in Japan. For instance, they will forgive you if you move in to your new apartment and don't go around introducing yourself to your neighbors with little gifts because they realize you are unaware that this is traditional. Today, it occurred to me that this understanding is not entirely one-sided in the benefits department.

I was parking my bike in a narrow alley next to the market and two women were passing in the narrow area behind me. It was an area wide enough for two people to comfortably pass by but one was pushing a bicycle. I was probably occupying about 1/4 of the available space as I eased the bike into a gap, and I certainly was the first one there. One woman, before she had a chance to even bump into the other, asked to be excused and then proceeded to knock into me without a word. It was pretty clear that she didn't feel obliged to exercise any courtesy toward me because I was a foreigner.

I know that a lot of foreigners feel persecuted and that bad behavior is often directed at them as a form of prejudice. I'm not actually saying this was the case though I do know that there are people who treat foreigners badly and have had a few obvious experiences myself. However, it was clear that this wasn't just some rude, pushy woman because she had already displayed overly gracious deference to the other woman while blithely pretending I was an inanimate obstacle in her path.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Banana "Lassi"

I enjoy the taste of yogurt but I'm actually not all that keen on eating it. There's something about the gloopy texture that doesn't sit well with me. I also know that there are a lot of health benefits to eating it that make it a desirable thing to include in one's diet.

The yogurt pictured above is bifidus yogurt and is found in almost all Japanese supermarkets. This particular type has no sugar and tends to be relatively cheap. A 500 gram container costs about 160 yen on sale and around 200-250 yen regularly. You can get 3-5 servings from one container depending on how hungry you are.

Bifidus yogurt contains beneficial bacteria which are supposed to aid in digestion. There is also evidence that it lowers cholesterol. However, this particular brand is not low fat. It lists 3% under fat in the nutrition information. Being yogurt though, it's not exactly calorie-packed. The entire container is 325 calories.

In order to avoid having to eat yogurt in its normal state, I mix it up with my Braun multiquick hand mixer into a lassi-style drink. A lassi, for those who haven't had much Indian food, is a yogurt drink traditionally made with water and spices such as cumin or turmeric. Mango is sometimes used in such drinks but I prefer bananas because they are easier to get, cheaper, and far quicker to prepare.

Here's the recipe:

1 medium banana
3-4 heaping tablespoons yogurt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
dash or two of vanilla essence
1 cup low fat or skim milk (use more or less to taste)
1-2 packets of artificial sweetener (optional)

Blend with a hand mixer or blender until smooth.

The Morinaga bifidus yogurt comes with a little packet of sugar which you can choose to use to sweeten it. The crystals are large and look like small pellets. They resemble the confetti that you put on top of cupcakes. I'm not sure what is done to sugar to make it look like this but it's got to have some sort of funky artificial enhancement going on.

I've never actually used these packets because the reason I go out of my way to find sugar-free yogurt is to, well, avoid the sugar.

This drink makes an excellent, fast and cheap breakfast. Throwing one together takes about 5 minutes and the cost is about 100 yen per serving. At the very least, you can drink it with a piece of toast for breakfast to increase the nutritional value of your morning meal.

Friday, September 15, 2006

"Talk Like a Pirate Day" is coming

September 19 is 'Talk Like a Pirate Day'. This is the only invented holiday which I heartily endorse. This is partially because it wasn't invented by a candy, flower or greeting card company but it's also because I think we should all be encouraged to spend at least one day a year acting goofy and talking funny.

There are several official web sites for 'Talk Like a Pirate Day' but the most official-looking one is here. While they are pushing a book, they also link to pictures of people observing the day.

If I were in the U.S., and had access to a variety of friends who could understand the concept, I'd definitely hold a party complete with homemade grog and sea chanties. I'm pretty sure, however, that the Japanese couldn't talk like a pirate if they tried. It's hard enough for them to speak English. The best I can do, therefore, is to get into the spirit of things and enjoy a piratey atmosphere at home.

To that end, I offer you my artwork of Skull from PvP as a pirate for your desktop. A small piece of it is at the top of this entry but a screen-size one can be downloaded here.

I also heartily recommend playing any incarnation of Monkey Island that you can get your hands on. This is a LucasArts adventure game for both PC and Mac that was inspired by the Pirates of the Carribbean attraction before the wildly popular movies came out. The flavor of the games is similar to that of the movies. In fact, there are some identical scenes in each (such as the dog with the prison cell key).

You can learn more about the games from two very good fan sites: The Legend of Monkey Island and World of Monkey Island. You'll have to search around a bit to find the games though, particularly the older ones. Aspyr ported Escape From Monkey Island to the Mac. PC users can get it from LucasArts. I'm not sure if the first few games, which were distributed on floppy, can be purchased anywhere anymore but there may be, ahem, some way of getting them for resourceful types. I replayed MI 1 and MI 2 over the last 4 days and they're still fun. I started MI 3 last night and plan on soldiering on to MI 4.

One of the most obvious ways to get in the spirit of things is to watch pirate movies. While the Johnny Depp movies are fine, for a real old salty dog experience, you have to turn to Robert Newton's hammy performances as Long John Silver. You can go with Treasure Island but for a full dose, his 1955 Adventures of Long John Silver television series which is available as part of a large and cheap collection of pirate movies is definitely the bee's knees.

At the very least, on September 19, try to wear a puffy shirt. ;-)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Living Cheap in Tokyo

The number one way to save money while living in Tokyo is to cook your own food. Shopping carefully for the food you cook goes hand in hand with this. Eating out is good if you're choosing to do so to experience local cuisine. It's bad if you're picking up McDonald's on your way home from work or eating pre-packaged food from convenience stores.

The reason this is the number one way to save money is that it's one of the few things you have a choice about which can be relatively expensive, unlike rent. I mentioned when I talked about budgeting that I can make a meal for two for 500 yen or less and just to show that this doesn't mean two UFOs or bowls of noodles with a few yakitori sticks on the side, I'll show you how that money gets spent.

The picture above is my recent shopping trip to Yutakarya. This is the cheapest shop for fresh food in my area. There are branches of this store in other areas of Tokyo (follow the link and scroll down if you want to see where). I'm sure there are similar shops in most areas. Just keep an eye on where all the older folks seem to shop. Investigate your neighborhood markets with extra attention to the less glossy-looking ones. Places like Ito Yokado, Peacock, and Seiyu are more comfortable to shop in but they don't offer the best prices most of the time.

Some of the grubby little places with lots of cartons outside are the cheapest ones. The reason they look grubby is that there's so much traffic in and out of them and they aren't spending all their money on a lady to swab the escalator rails all day. I'll grant you though that some of them are exactly what they appear to be, grubby and worthless, but there's no harm in looking.

Another good place to look for cheap food shopping is Hanamasa though you have to buy items in bulk there. Cheese, in 1 kilogram blocks, is especially cheap there as are pork chops and other types of meat. It's also one of the few places where you can buy small whole chickens.

To give you an idea of the prices at Yutakaraya, the food above includes potatoes and onions for 100 yen a bag, carrots for 130 yen, and 5 large pieces of chicken as priced below.

Chicken breast can be had for 39 yen per 100 grams and thighs for 49 yen per 100 grams. I can also get ground beef at Yutakaraya for 70 yen per 100 grams and sometimes pork chops for 80 yen per 100 grams though 108 yen is more usual. Compared to supermarkets, this is appreciably cheaper.

The above chicken will be cooked in a clay pot with the carrots, onions and potatoes for 6 servings. That's 172 yen per serving per person for a dinner with a large meat serving and 3 vegetables on the side. As a bonus, I only have to cook once and we can eat three times. Usually, I follow the "cook once, eat twice" rule and plan for one night of leftovers but the thighes come in 3-packs so I might as well cook them all together. If I think I'll get sick of something or it'll be unsafe by the third night, I'll freeze it (after cooking) and eat it at a later date.

The costs don't include the spices, soy sauce and wine that'll be put in the pot but the costs of those items won't exceed 100 yen total. I can get small bottles of wine adequate for cooking two dishes (4-6 servings) at the local 99 yen shop. The spices come from Costco and are in huge containers and quite cheap as well.

The Coke pictured above is 100 yen a bottle which makes it about 50 yen cheaper than convenience stores and about 18 yen cheaper than most markets. The peaches were a late season steal at 80 yen each. The only luxury item in the picture are the croutons which cost nearly as much as the breast meat at 134 yen. Another "steal" at Yutakaraya is the lettuce which is often 100 yen for a large head of 'sunny' lettuce - the type which typically sells for 260-300 yen a head at most markets.

I'm rather lucky that one shop offers so much at lower prices but I know that there are other places where you can get similar bargains. The local meat shop has the lowest prices on ground chicken, for instance (58 yen per 100 grams) and is fresh. You just have to pay attention to prices each time you shop and really investigate the area you live in.

I know many people consider cooking a pain especially after they get home from a long day of work. However, if you cook just two nights a week and always cook enough for two meals, you're covered for more than half the week. If nothing else, consider the money you save by cooking will probably allow you to eat out at good restaurants more often rather than waste your money on fast or instant food. You'll also feel better because you'll be eating whole foods and better balanced meals.

You say FAQ, I say F-A-Q

I was speaking to my sister this morning and asked if she'd look up substituting white wine for vermouth for me and she said she'd found a FAQ which said it was fine to do so. Because of the magic of GoogleTalk, we were actually talking so I heard her pronounce it "fack". My former boss also pronounced FAQ in this way but I always say the individual letters. I then asked my sister if many people said it as one word and she said they did.

The reason that I don't say it as "fack" is not rooted in prudishness related to the similarity of that pronunciation and another more vulgar word but rather due to an experience I had at my former job to which that pronunciation is forever linked.

Part of my work at that time was conducting 5-minute conversations with up to 32 students a day. Most of the students were freshman employees or college students who were going to be freshman employees in about 4 or 5 months. All of the students I dealt with were being given the program as corporate training.

As you might imagine, the vast majority of the students were young males and thus were hormonally-challenged. Because of this, they have a tendency to be pretty immature around women. One of these fellows got it into his head that he was going to use his access to a gaijin female to make an obscene phone call in English. Unfortunately for him, he suffered the same "u" and "a" pronunciation issues that many Japanese students have. I answered the phone and he uttered a breathy, "fack, fack, fack". It was all I could do not to laugh (which might encourage him).

I will forever associate FAQ pronounced as one word with that incompetent obscene phone caller and smile.

On a related note, one of my fellow teachers when I worked at Nova, told me of another "a"/"u" pronunciation problem. He said his student asserted something and then said, "it's f*cked". He asked her to repeat several times because he couldn't believe she meant what she said. Eventually, he figured out she was trying to say "it's fact."

Deep Discount DVD

This morning I received the first of what will be 3 shipments from a mail order DVD house called Deep Discount DVD. Whether you're in Japan or in the U.S., this is a place you'll want to look into for purchasing Region 1 DVDs at sometimes unbeatable prices.

Deep Discount DVD on average runs a bit cheaper than Amazon though the prices will vary from title to title. The point at which it really shines is when it offers sales and titles you're interested in happen to be on offer. Since I'm a particular fan of boxed sets of T.V. series, I didn't hesitate to take advantage of their "buy one, get one free" campaign.

For the pictured series, I paid between $9-$14 per box set. That's a per season price and nothing is going to beat that short of piracy. The cool thing is that they were offering 3 series I like in this particular campaign and I got 10 seasons for $122 (including airmail shipping to Japan). Previously, my husband and I were able to pick up "All in the Family" for $7 per season.

My sister has been buying from DDD for quite some time and has never had any problems with them so they appear to be quite reliable despite the bargain house appearance of their web site. If you're interested in building a collection, the best thing to do is sign up to receive their sales information via e-mail and check out what they've got at extra low prices. Yes, I'm actually recommending you receive this particular company's spam.

As an aside, the box I received was wrapped with some tape from the United States postal service that I've never seen before (pictured below).

I'm not sure what the motivation was for this type of tape or warning. Has there been an increase in the number of stolen parcels or mailbox vandalizing in the U.S.?

It reminds me of something that one of my British coworkers said of an incident in a post office in England that he worked at part-time during the holiday season. He said that the plumbing got clogged up and that, upon investigation, they discovered it was stuffed up with parcel wrapping. Apparently, employees were taking packages into the bathroom, tearing them open, flushing the wrapping and stealing the contents. When I told him this was a serious crime in the U.S., he was somewhat surprised.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Plot Thickens

I mentioned in a previous post that the referral company that sends private students my way had an inexplicable change in policy. That is, they now want reports on the content of each lesson for each student. Yesterday, I got another e-mail message addressed to all teachers which hints at the probable motivation for that change in policy.

This message directed the teachers to a web site which contained short videos of a teacher teaching a lesson. The video we were supposed to watch in particular was about offering correction while also offering encouragement in a polite way. I'm guessing that the complaint or problem that may have motivated the change in policy must have been about a teacher who was too harsh in his correction or somehow managed to undermine the student's confidence.

It is quite easy though to upset students in conversation lessons if the student possesses a sufficiently fragile ego about his English abilities. When I worked for one of the big chain language schools, one of my coworkers at that time remarked that she felt that we shouldn't be constantly bundling the students up in "cotton wool" (that's British for what Americans simply call "cotton") when they were learning. She felt that we were constantly pandering to the students and having to treat them as fragile children to ensure that they never had cause for complaint.

While I never had a problem with being overly solicitous with students, I do believe she had a point. Some students took advantage of the situation and would be overtly rude to teachers or say the types of things they'd never say to another Japanese person. Additionally, I had several experiences where I was as polite and friendly as possible as well as pushed as much energy into my lessons as I could and some random student would still complain.

Part of the problem is that English conversation study is more about business than education. Those who study in academic institutions adopt the posture of someone who is learning and attaining a goal. Many of those who study at conversation schools have the attitude of customers receiving a service much as one might at a restaurant.

Another part of the problem is many Japanese people study English out of obligation rather than a desire to communicate in English and they are irritated at having to be in lessons at all. Even though they are doing very little to advance their ability and are often passive in the extreme, they still blame the teacher if they do not advance, are bored, or feel they are getting nothing out of the class. Such people are going to have little better to do than complain. It's part of taking out their frustration at being coerced into studying by their company, parents, or some external need on someone who is more powerless than they are.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Magic Flakes

When you're sick, lots of food that has limited appeal starts to seem like the answer to your dreams. Chief among my food wish list when I'm ill are saltine crackers. Unfortunately, I wasn't in any mood to bike or hike off to a supermarket so I decided to scrounge around at the local convenience store called QQ ("99"). This is the type of store that carries smaller packages of things for a cheaper price, some "store brand" items like 99 yen low fat milk, and the occasional import from a country that produces items at companies paying relatively low wages.

My cracker needs were answered by a huge package of "premium" crackers from the Phillipines with the odd name of "Magic Flakes". I'm not sure why they're magic but they are very good, thin, crispy crackers. They're made by a company called Universal Robina which is well-known in the Phillipines and attempting to expand into other Asian markets. Since QQ seems to carry imports you don't tend to see in bigger markets, I'm guessing they're not having the best of luck getting their brands onto shelves in Japan.

I was thinking about how my immediate reaction upon seeing new brands in stores if they aren't produced by a well-known producer is to suspect the product is of dubious quality. It just goes to show how we learn to trust a product more if the company advertises enough to make us feel comfortable with it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Calling in Sick, Or Not

Having a cold in Japan while you are employed by a Japanese company can be a frustrating experience. When I was working, I only called in sick if I were in a dire situation and couldn't fathom struggling through the day with an illness. I knew that, as a teacher, my being sick would put the company out rather seriously because of the need to reschedule. They weren't sufficiently staffed to send replacements because it was a small company.

On several occasions, the president of the company said he believed that people who caught colds only did so because they didn't take sufficient care of themselves. He also implied that not taking care of yourself (and therefore allowing yourself to get sick) was showing you were not being responsible enough toward your company. In other words, he acted like getting sick was the same type of thing as not meeting your sales quota or whatnot.

Never mind that we all rode public transportation to work and could not help but have contact with masses of people coughing open-mouthed, sneezing without a tissue, and engaging in various disgusting habits then touching the railing, seats, and ticket purchasing areas that we did. All it takes to get contaminated is being next to one self-centered person who figures he has no responsibility to keep his bodily fluids to himself.

Another annoying thing was that, on those occasions when I went to work sick, the first thing my Japanese coworkers would do is ask if I'd gone to a doctor. There is no cure for the common cold. A doctor cannot make me better. The only thing a doctor will do is give me medication to suppress the symptoms so I can work with less discomfort while sick. The problem with those medications is they tend to prolong recovery since the symptoms are part of what helps rid you of the cold virus.

I'm not sure what motivates Japanese people to run off to the doctor when they get a cold. It could be that having national health care makes them indifferent to the cost of frivilous trips. It could be paranoia that the cold symptoms mean something worse. It could be that it's the only way their company will believe they're really sick or the only way they can cope with such long work hours is to get medication. It could also be that they aren't aware that the only treatment for colds is rest to allow your immune system to climb on top of things and to drink lots of liquids. I don't know but I got pretty tired of the question.

Since I'm not working anymore, I don't have to deal with either the inquiries or muster up the endurance to get through the workday with a sore throat or a runny nose. I'm just at the start of what feels like a chest cold now and it'd be nice to say that I have all the time in the world to rest but I still work from home and am just as reluctant to cancel lessons now as when my company was arranging for them.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Living on a Budget

During most of my time in Japan, I have not budgeted or kept a close eye on the outflow of cash. The truth is that, up until I quit my job and we had to live on one income I didn't pay much attention to how much my husband and I spent.

That's not to say that I didn't think about how much it would cost a Japanese person. In fact, upon hearing some of the relatively low salaries of my female coworkers (150,000-180,000 yen a month), I wondered how they got by. I always convinced myself that they would have to live with their parents in order to survive on such low wages.

After about a month of tracking my budget, I believe that I was incorrect in that conclusion. Excluding my taxes and health insurance (which are a year behind and reflect my wages for the previous year and therefore rather inaccurate to factor into a budget without that income), I worked out that we can squeak by on 210,000 yen a month. That wouldn't cover incidental purchases like new clothes or replacement or repair of existing household items. It would cover rent, utilities, food (alloting 2,000 yen a day for food), and the relative luxury of DSL and cable T.V.

If you consider that we're paying for two people to eat relatively western dishes which include expensive items like cheese and the fact that our rent is 110,000 yen a month (relatively high), I can see how a single person could get by on about 60,000 or so less than us. It wouldn't be fun, but it would be possible.

I also determined that the biggest "waste" of money by far is eating out or having food delivered instead of cooking for ourselves or having my husband take his lunch with him. I can cook a meal for two for 500 yen or less but eating out will almost always cost a thousand yen per person (excluding a drink) or more unless you're taking part in some lunch deal. I also figured out that the number one way I could save money is to only drink water instead of Diet Coke or other beverages.

Life's too short to give up all the little luxuries though so we haven't given up everything in the name of saving money. However, it is good to know that we could get by with less if the need ever arose.

Major Choices

Prince Akishino has been in the news as of late because the genetic gamble that is reproduction has finally produced a male offspring for the royal family. I actually don't care about this but the fact that he studied fish taxonomy at Oxford as was mentioned in a news snippet on Japan Probe did pique my interest.

Before anyone starts thinking I've developed an unhealthy interest in fish or in awkward royal persons, let me say that it is the fact that he chose this type of major which propelled me into thought. One of my private students has been preparing to enter a foreign college located on an American base and she chose criminal justice as her major. If she were interested in being a police officer, a forensic analyst, or even a criminal lawyer, this major would make sense. What she is interested in, in fact, is rescuing animals.

The reason she chose criminal justice was because, among the limited possibilities offered by the college, she felt this type of study was the most "concrete". That is, it required the least amount of philophizing and personal insight and expansion. In other words, she chose the major which was most likely to ask questions with one correct answer rather than many possible correct answers.

Given that she'll be taking lessons in a language other than one she speaks natively, this is actually quite understandable. I daresay that most native English speakers would be hard-pressed to offer up sophisticated philosophical or analytical insights in another language, especially since most of them don't know any others.

This also fits in with the way in which education is handled in Japanese culture. For the most part, the education system focuses on the kind of test-taking that requires one right answer to each question. Teachers don't encourage classroom discussion and sometimes they actively discourage dissenting opinions. It's unsurprising that a Japanese person who wants to study abroad would choose something like fish taxonomy as a major as it'd fit more closely with the educational training they've had all their lives.

By the way, as I'm sure Prince Akishino could tell you if he were looking at the picture above, that's a moonfish.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Worldwide Garage Sale

Back in the days before everyone and his pet goldfish had internet access and a home computer (yes, I'm old enough to have lived during that age), I had a flirtation with using and collecting rubber stamps. I picked up quite a few of them at Odakyu Department store back when Halc extended up through the higher floors. All sorts of neat hobby items were sold there and it was mainly geared toward female customers. Eventually, those sections disappeared and were replaced by Bic camera. I guess they felt they needed to appeal more to male customers but never mind.

These stamps were moderately expensive. The Kliban cat one pictured above (which I modified to make my profile picture) was 1200 yen or about $11 U.S. After my brief fling with stamps ended, I put them in a cardboard box and shoved them under the bed. They remained there until several months ago when moving the bed required that I fish out all the crap I'd shoved under there for over a decade. There was so much dust on top of the boxes under there that they looked like they had a piece of thick grey felt on top.

The choice I was faced with was the quick, easy and wasteful route (throwing them in the trash) or the troublesome, less wasteful route (selling them on eBay). Being environmentally-minded and still not having transcended an irrational attachment to transitional objects, I opted for eBay.

It turned out to be a good idea because the stamp above sold for a little less than $33. Others fared less well though the lowest was $9 and another sold for nearly $25. The lesson to be learned here for those of us living in Japan is to think twice before we toss things out. It's a good idea to check the sales trends on eBay to see if there is a market for things of which you've grown tired. Even relatively common collectable items all around the world might be unique because you bought them in Japan.

Monday, September 04, 2006


The company from which I receive referrals for private students sent an e-mail message, presumably to all teachers who work with them, requesting that teachers now start to send an account of the content of each lesson taught. I've worked on and off with this particular company for over a decade now and this is the first time they've made such a request. It's not that I mind fulfilling their request because I already keep such records for myself and can just copy the file for them but I'm suspicious of their motives in making such a request.

The reasons given for this information is a desire to know each teacher's methods, track the progress of students and to know if the lessons have been completed and when. The final reason is absurd since that information is already included in the report of total hours each teacher must make. A teacher cannot claim a student attended for an hour and request payment if the teacher didn't teach for an hour.

This service has been pretty good to me but I do find it odd that this information wasn't necessary for years but now is of concern. It seems unlikely that they suddenly have decided to waste man hours reading such reports. It seems even more unlikely that they would care about lesson content since their materials have always said, quite correctly, that students who take private lessons often just want to have friendly conversations. The fact that the service provides only an idioms textbook and no other materials also shows a lack of commitment to serious learning.

When I worked at a company, I found that stated reasons were often lies or distortions to cover up unpleasant realities. At one point, we were told to make sure we kept the kitchen door closed because they didn't want any lunch preparation-related smells to waft into the office if a client visited. This request was despite the fact that clients rarely came to the office as the salesmen usually visited the clients. In the end, the real reason was the company president's neurotic aversion to any type of odor, even relatively benign ones.

Additionally, often new blanket policies would stem from one problem with an aberrant student or client. Almost always, it was the case that pointless added work for the foreign staff was the result of one complaint or lone request. For instance, my schedule was shifted an hour later because a client once asked a salesman if later lessons were possible. A few years later, they wanted to switch it back because it turned out that that time was relatively unpopular with most clients.

It's safe to say that I've grown accustomed to both short-sighted decision-making and big white lies when it comes to the reasons why I'm being asked to do more work. Because of this, I can't help but view this request with suspicion. I have to consider that the real reasons are that someone complained about something and the company feels this will give them some (imaginary) measure of control over the teachers and lessons or they want to accumulate information for sales purposes. That is to say, they want to be able to say they track lessons and are an attentive company even though they may not do anything more than file the reports away.

When I worked in the United States, I worked for 3 different private non-profit agencies where corporate culture was not an issue so I can't say if this sort of misleading or fibbing is done. Some part of me wants to believe that this is related to tatamae and honne and not necessarily something all companies do but I'm uncertain. If I had to guess, I'd wager that companies in the U.S. make similar short-sighted blanket policy changes and arbitrary decisions but don't bother to give a sugar-coated reason.

Apartment Tour

Since I've commented on many other Japan blogs that I enjoy the pictures they post of their places, I decided I should at least offer the option of letting people see what my place looks like. I also want friends and family who read this to have a look around if they'd like. For interested parties, I've posted a pretty thorough "guided tour" of the inside of our place. As I've mentioned before, the interior of the apartment is 20 years old though we've been here for only 17 of those years.

The .html still needs tweaking though so some display weirdnesses might occur. The gallery was automatically generated from Photoshop.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Prove to a blind man that sight exists

I had a discussion with a student today about religion and spirituality. Based on having seen someone who claimed to communicate with the dead some time back on Larry King and the book Hello From Heaven (which I have not read), I asked my student if she believed such a thing was possible. She said that she did not. Then, I asked her how she'd convince a blind person that such a thing as sight was real. For this, she had no answer.

This raises an interesting question about psychic abilities. How can anyone who possesses a sense that others do not prove that sense exists? A person born blind from birth has to take your word for it that sight actually exists and only does so because so many people say it is so. However, does a sense, such as the ability to communicate with the dead, not exist because only a small minority possess it?

We all rely on our senses almost exclusively when estimating the nature of our world. Part of the purpose of meditation is to turn ourselves off from the senses for awhile in order to experience something else. Unfortunately, most people are never able to disengage their sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste enough to find out if there is some other sense that our other senses are covering up our ability to perceive.

It's not so outrageous a possibility that the blaring stimulation one's nervous system receives could be making it hard to sense something else. After all, people who are inundated with sounds often say it is "too loud to think". If your mental clarity can be impeded by loud sounds, extreme temperatures, or bright light, isn't it possible that the cacophony of sensory input in daily life is blotting out other more subtle sensations?

Our senses are also highly fallible. How often do you see something out of the corner of your eye yet upon closer inspection see nothing there. And, how common is it to be with someone and say, "did you say something?" when nothing has been uttered. It's also not uncommon to have non-psychotic olfactory mini-hallucinations though most people do not recognize them as hallucinations. They just think they smell something which has a source they cannot locate.

Yet we trust our senses quite thoroughly and readily dismiss all that we cannot personally perceive. Science is built on a foundation of extending the senses through technology in order to "prove" things. Never mind that theories are mutating and old proof is being proven incorrect because of the inaccuracy of the instrumentation. Remember the pictures of the face on Mars? For many years, tales were spun about the formation in this famous picture taken in 1976 by Viking 1. In 2001, better technology on the Mars Global Surveyer has shown there is no face in the formation and it's simply a mesa. It's about what we think we see, not what is actually there.

I'm not suggesting that we start believing every medium's claim that he or she can talk to Aunt Minnie who passed away 10 years ago or that we disbelieve everything our senses perceive. What I'm suggesting is that we at least be open-minded to the possibility that our senses aren't all that there is and that they aren't always right. We should accept the possibility that we are blind to what some people can sense and that they're not lying because they can't offer proof of their ability.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Watching Region-free

Back before DVD standards were settled upon, my husband and I had to make a decision about what region code we were going to accumulate a collection under. Since we ultimately plan to reside in the United States, we chose to purchase only Region 1 encoded DVDs. This also was better for us because discs from the U.S. are cheaper than those in Japan and often titles are released earlier or exclusively there.

Having made that choice, we bought a rather expensive region-free player from the states by mail order. This was back in "the old days" before many shops in Akihabara carried players that could easily be set to be region-free or were region-free out of the box. That venerable machine, a Pioneer, went to DVD heaven earlier this year.

Rather than toddle off to Akihabara to secure a successor, we decided to opt for the rather cheap one that the FBC was offering. The main benefit of doing this was we were guaranteed the ability to download an English manual and a diagram of all the remote's functions translated into English. While I've gotten pretty good at stumbling my way through everything from Japanese computer manuals to utility bills (with the help of my husband), I'd rather that the more complicated functions of an audio-visual device were there for me in English if I have that option.

For 8,730 yen, it's been a pretty good deal. It works as well as any DVD player. That is to say, it can be idiosyncratic about some discs but plays 95% of them without problems. It also plays MP3's, DVD-RWs, and other discs which our old player could be a bit fussy about. The circular display on the right has a kaleidoscope function where it cycles through various colors while it displays the time on the disc. If that weren't all dandy enough, the unit has a small footprint (Dimensions: W25 x H6.2 x D25.5cm) which is rather helpful for those of us in small apartments.

images copyright of the Foreign Buyer's Club


"frow him to the froor vewy wough-wy, centuwion"

I don't watch much Japanese T.V. unless you count snippets on YouTube posted by Japan Probe. Part of the reason for this is that the type of entertainment on Japanese T.V. doesn't interest me much and the other reason is my Japanese is embarrassingly bad.

I do watch Japanese cable T.V. when I can find a station that's not showing Korean dramas, Aly McBeal, old crime dramas, or bad movies. However, I seem to have an uncanny ability to think about watching T.V. about 10-15 minutes before the hour when Japanese networks are running commercials between shows. For those who are in the U.S., a lot of Japanese cable channels show no commercials at all during programs and just run them repeatedly between shows.

So, I buy a lot of DVDs. I'm always on the hunt for good viewing material and I'm a particular fan of historical dramas. Fortunately, I stumbled across "Rome", a miniseries jointly produced by HBO and the BBC. Season 1 is now out on DVD and well worth spending some time watching. There are 12 episodes that span the time from Julius Caesar's struggle to make himself emperor to his death. However, unlike most of these types of dramas, the center of the series is not Caesar though his story is the backbone of season 1. The machinations of his relatives, enemies, and allies and the part they played in his demise form the meat of the show. We also get to follow the lives of two soldiers, Titus and Lucius. They are meant to portray the "everyman" of Roman society but are often ensnared in loftier situations through unfortunate happenstance.

"Do you think that sheppardess would like to do it doggie-style?"
(Titus and Lucius)

It is the way in which the series shows us the daily lives of Romans where it deviates from the usual Roman epic. Some of it is pretty brutal and quite graphic. In fact, it's rather hard not to notice the softcore porn aspects of some of the sex scenes. Since "Rome" was co-produced by HBO, it's not surprising that they've chosen to take advantage of their cable-based freedom when it comes to showing nudity. Titus in particular seems to display a voracious appetite for women and speaks quite crudely of their anatomy on several occasions. The series is not for the prudish or easily-offended.

Aside from the more titillating aspects, there are numerous plots woven and unravelled in a soapishly delicious way, character development (espeically for Lucius) and a real feel for what it may have been like to live in Rome around 40 BC. Background characters, such as the town crier, show personality in their limited roles and you develop an affinity for them, as if they were acquaintances in a town you actually lived in.

The series does a very good job of making the history behind Caesar's downfall clear and understandable without being boring or tedious. This is the first time I've seen a portrayal of Caesar's life show us how someone who was a conquering hero and generally seemed to act in the interests of the people could have been seen as such a great tyrant by his political opponents.

It's also good for what it avoids. While many movies have spent most of their screen time savoring Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra, we barely see more than a kiss and a resulting offspring. We're spared the cliche of Cleopatra being unrolled from a carpet at Caesar's feet and "et tu brute" is never uttered.

The series can be purchased from Amazon for about $62. If you wait awhile, the price will likely go down but it is well worth that price given the quality of the production and the compelling story.

all images from "Rome" are the copyright of HBO and the BBC

Why Can't We Just Get Along?

I notice with some alarm that a lot of my post titles seem to be questions. Perhaps that's because I've been teaching so long that I feel I shouldn't speak about what I think or feel unless interest is overtly expressed first. Maybe I'm just "inviting" myself to speak in the absence of someone else to do it for me.

At any rate, a really dumb letter in Cary Tennis's advice column on Salon got me thinking about something. The letter is about how someone is leaving print-outs of politically conservative material on the men's room floor. The author of the letter is in "vociferous" disagreement of the content of the letter but also annoyed that a neutral territory like the men's room is being turned into a passive-aggressive political arena. And, oh yes, it's being littered on as well.

This letter, in which someone bothers to get worked up about the type of trash left on the bathroom floor, and Cary's reply started me thinking about just how intolerant people have become of political dissent among their associates, friends, and family. There was a time when such issues were not discussed because they could lead to inflamed emotional states and conflict. While that time has thankfully passed, it seems to have been replaced by a situation where we exercise zero empathy for the opposing side and begin to estimate the opposing party's entire character as being repugnant based on political views alone.

I have to wonder what brought us to this state of discourse when the topic of politics is raised. I believe it is possible that everyone is so unhappy and feels that anyone who doesn't agree with their way of pursing their own personal success is a threat to their happiness and well-being. In essence, people of opposing views become "the enemy" who will act to make you pay more or less taxes, get more or less health care, have higher or lower wages, increase or decrease military protection, or force you to abandon your religion or embrace theirs. The scarier thought to me is that I don't know how this can stop given the slow degradation of lifestyle in the U.S. and the culture of entitlement. People feel they deserve more but are constantly getting less.

Situations like this do remind me though of how one of my students reacted when I talked to her about how I wouldn't read a famous science fiction author who was vehemently anti-gay. While she also feels it's wrong to be prejudiced against homosexuals, she also said that she would not reject anyone's views out of hand. She said that she would listen and try to understand their point of view. I imagine this is a way of thinking rooted in the culture of consensus. If you listen to everyone and understand their viewpoint, there may be a satisfactory middle ground. This is an element of Japanese culture which I hope is not lost in the increasingly westernized way of living. Perhaps if we were all a little more interested in finding the middle ground than getting our way or proving we are right, there'd be a lot less anger in the world and we'd all be more satisfied with the slice of pie we are given in life.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Two by Two Stir Fry

I don't usually eat anything remotely resembling Japanese food nor do I frequently eat rice but I do try to take advantage of the ingredients at hand once in awhile. Yes, I know a stir fry isn't very "western" and I said I'd talk about living a western lifestyle. If it helps, I eat it with a fork.

This is an easy to remember chicken stir fry recipe (because you use 2 of most ingredients) that I like to have once a month or so for variety. It's cheap, quick, healthy, and easy to make. The prep time for getting the chicken into the marinade is about 10 minutes. The prep time for the remainder is about 5 minutes (unless you are extremely incompetent with cutting up vegetables). Cooking time is 10-15 minutes depending on your pan size and how hot your stir fry is.


2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts cut into small bite-size pieces
2 T. mirin (sweet cooking sake)
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. olive oil
2 t. seasoned vinegar (I use Mitsukan)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
dash or two of salt and pepper

1- 2 T. olive oil (for stir frying)
2 small-medium green peppers cut into largish bite-size pieces
2 small onions, cut into largish bite-size pieces
2 chicken consomme cubes dissolved in 3/4 cup very hot water
2 t. cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
cashews (optional)

Place the chicken breast into a Ziploc bag. Put mirin, soy sauce, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk until well blended. Pour this over the chicken for a marinade. Squeeze the bag gently to distribute the marinade evenly and put in the refrigerator for 2-8 hours.

For the green pepper and onion, the easiest way to cut them is to cut them in half then cut each half in quarters. You don't want the pieces to be too small or they'll cook too quickly and get mushy.

Heat a large skillet or wok under high heat. Add oil. Add the peppers and onions and stir around constantly until slightly cooked (about 3 minutes). You want them to stay crispy so make sure they aren't cooked to a wilted point. Add the chicken. You can likely upend the entire bag in since the chicken will have absorbed all of the marinade. Stir the chicken around over high heat until almost cooked. It should not take too long if the pieces aren't too large. The pieces will brown slightly.

Add the chicken broth made with consomme and stir around. Allow the chicken to finish cooking in the broth then add the cornstarch water and stir to thicken.

Serve over rice. Top with cashews. Makes 4 servings.

This recipe may be a bit salty for some so you may want to consider using low salt chicken broth instead of consomme or low sodium soy sauce.

Bean Cakes That Resemble Things

I'm not a great fan of Japanese sweets but I did take to white bean sweets almost from the first time I tried them. White bean cakes and buns are different from the more popular red bean cakes in that the beans are finer and usually sweeter. That's not to say they compare to a Twinkie or Krispie Kreme in sweetness but, by Japanese standards, they are higher up on the sweetness scale.

I had my first taste of my absolute favorite white bean cake early on during my time in Japan while working at a conversation school. A student brought the cakes in as a souvenir and shared them with the teachers. They were called "kogane imo" and we liked them so much that we tracked them down from the address on the box. It's been so long since I last had them that I forgot where the shop was located, but my husband says that the place we found them in was Ningyocho.

They are called "imo" because they are brown and shaped like potatoes. They had cinnamon on the outside but weren't overly sweet or sugary. They also tasted vaguely "woodsy", as if they had been cooked on wood chips. Eating one, especially a very fresh one, was a complete piece of heaven.

A more accessible white bean treat can be picked up at my local supermarket. These are Kamome no Tamago (pictured above) which means "seagull egg". While the description claims that the outer shell is a "white chocolate" coating, it does not resemble chocolate much in taste or texture. It's not very sweet and relatively higher in fat.

A package of 6 of these eggs is about 600 yen and they are popular souvenirs sold on trains. if you can't find them elsewhere, they can be ordered through the manufacturer's web site. They're probably a better food souvenir for folks back home than most because they suit foreign palates but are still distinctively Japanese.

I never thought much about why Japanese sweets were supposedly healthier than American ones beyond the lower sugar content but that's before I thought a bit more about the effect of protein on blood sugar. If you consume any sweet, consuming it along with protein will help decrease the chance of a strong spike in blood sugar. And since traditional sweets contain beans which are high in protein, they are less likely to send you into a sugar high then a blood sugar crash and less likely to contribute to insulin resistance (which can lead to Type 2 diabetes).