Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Homemade Tortillas

If you're in the mood for Mexican food in Japan, you have some limited options for getting what you want. There are a few Mexican restaurants but most of them sell dishes altered to suit Japanese tastes. A few exceptions are La Jolla in Hiroo and El Torito. The food at these places is typical American-style Mexican for the most part though it's a bit pricey.

If you want to make your own, some local markets carry limited amounts of Mexican ingredients. For instance, you can get powdered seasoning mixes for tacos, guacomole, and Mexican rice. Taco shells are sold in most places which have foreign food sections though you can't get them at the average local market. A few also carry tortillas in the freezer section or packaged for long-term storage in plastic bags. Most of these tortillas are ridiculously priced (about 80-100 yen per tortilla) and not all that good because they're meant to sit on the shelf for months, not taste fresh.

If you're ambitious enough, you can make your own tortillas with easy to find ingredients. It's not difficult but it is somewhat time-consuming. The main benefit besides better taste and texture (because they're soft and fresh), is that you can make them with wheat flour instead of white. That makes them somewhat better for you as whole wheat flour has a less detrimental impact on blood sugar levels than white flour.

I usually make mine with a mixture of white and whole wheat since using only wheat flour tends to create a dough which tears apart rather than stays together as a cohesive ball.

Here's the recipe:


3 cups of flour (I use 2 cups of wheat, 1 cup of white)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4-6 tbsp. vegetable shortening (Crisco) - do no use lard!
about 1 1/4 cups warm water

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the vegetable shortening. Use a fork or pastry cutter to cut in the shortening or just mix it with your hands until it resembles coarse bread crumbs. Add warm water a little at a time until the dough is soft and not sticky.

Pull off pieces of dough until you have 12 small balls (make fewer if you want larger tortillas). Let them rest for 10 minutes or more.

Roll out each ball of dough until very thin and cook each tortilla in a medium-hot skillet for 20-30 seconds on each side. Be careful not to overcook them or they will dry out and be tough. If you make the tortillas with whole wheat flour, they will not brown the same as those made with white flour.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Building a Holiday (Halloween)

As Luis mentioned in his blog, the Japanese seem to be pushing Halloween as a holiday more and more each year. A flyer that was recently left in my mailbox which includes the above insert seemed to further support this notion. The above picture (click it to see a larger version with more detail) was included as part of an (Sony) Avic sale flyer for T.V.s, DVD recorders, and video cameras. The picture is printed on light card stock and says "Avic Halloween Festival (matsuri)". The box at the bottom is for kids to write their names and ages in.

The back of the insert talks about the fact that this is a (coloring) contest and that applicants get the jumbo bag of "Big Katsu" items pictured in the lower right as a "present" for entering. The items in the bag appear to be a variety of salty, deep-fried snack foods. There's nothing like getting your kids started on their hardened arteries as early as possible.

While I don't think Japanese kids will ever embrace trick or treating because the concept of going door to door for free candy doesn't seem to suit the Japanese character, I do think they could eventually build festivals around it that will allow kids to dress up, play games and get free treats. The contest Avic is offering seems to be a move to that end. As with all holidays, where there is a commercial opportunity, companies will be exploiting it.

I have to give Avic credit. The presence of this unusual Halloween flyer (at least I've never seen one like it before) made me pay more attention to their ad. I paid attention to the fact that HD flat screen T.V.s are outrageously priced (between $4000-$8000) and thought about how I hope our T.V. doesn't crap out on us for a long while.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Magic English Pill

As I've noted before, it's been a busy time for me as of late. In the last month, I've been offered 4 new private students and will be teaching 12-13 hours a week instead of 8 or so. I've also had a student who has been taking 3 lessons a week for awhile to prepare for a college interview and more frequent freelance work.

With my everlasting cold (now entering its second week of misery-induction), it's been a bit rough but what has been toughest on me has been a particular new student. This student is a housewife in her early 40's with two sons. She has a sister who lives in Canada and a brother living in Philadelphia. She claims she wants to learn English so she can effectively communicate while socializing with Americans when she visits her family. She told me she wants to improve her "broken English".

The problem is that her English isn't just "broken", it's a 5-car-pile-up with no survivors. What's more, she estimates her ability as far higher than it is. She told the referral agency that her level was "intermediate" when she can't even string together a simple sentence. In her first lesson, she answered questions by randomly blurting out words and sometimes starting a butchered sentence then getting stuck and looking wild-eyed at me and gesticulating madly as if that was going to somehow finish her thought. Unless we develop telepathy, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to understand what she means by her being bug-eyed and waving her hands like a demented spell-caster.

During the first lesson, I asked her questions to determine her level and what might be a good approach to teaching her. During the second lesson, I had a text in mind that I wanted to try but she whipped out a bunch of ancient pictures and started yammering about house cleaning. It took me awhile to work out she was talking not about cleaning but de-cluttering. She said she had an entire 6 mat room that was functioning as a closet for the various flotsam her family had accumulated and had to have a truck haul it away, twice, for 140,000 yen (about $1300).

She essentially hijacked the second lesson and made it impossible for me to apply any sort of structure or discipline to the situation without forcibly rejecting her topic of conversation (which would have been pretty obvious and rude). Both of her lessons left me totally exhausted both because of the effort involved in attempting to understand her and in trying to conduct what was essentially a free conversation with someone who greatly lacked the skills to carry on such a conversation.

Her problems with communication are greatly exacerbated by the fact that she has a problem understanding questions which many Japanese students have. That is, she doesn't listen well to the entire question and just picks up a keyword. She responds based on guessing what the question is from the keyword. This results in conversations like:

Teacher: Where do you work?
Student: Yes, I work.
Teacher: But, WHERE do you work?
Student: Salesman.
Teacher: Where is your office?
Student: Yes, I go to office.
Teacher: I'm going to beat you to death with your textbook now.
Student: I have textbook.

Now, this woman wants to have casual conversations with people in the United States and Canada in a social setting. No one will want to talk to someone who never seems to listen to what they're asking and who can't say a simple sentence like "I'm a housewife" without resorting to maniacally waving her hands around and looking at the other party expectantly in hopes he or she will finish the madwoman's thoughts.

This student clearly needs to practice structures and to learn to listen more effectively. Her basics need to be set before she can move on to having lengthy free conversations. So, for her third lesson, I decided I needed to take her in hand and get to the textbook before she could hijack the lesson again. Besides this being what she needs to achieve her goal, it's also pretty much all I can endure energy-wise. I can't possibly make small talk with someone of such limited abilities for an hour once a week. The range of material for someone with her vocabulary and grammar is simply too limited for such types of lessons.

Unfortunately, she seemed relatively resistant to doing practice of any sort. I had her practice a simple structure, "it's the ~th day of (month)" because it was in the text as part of the lesson and because it was useful for talking about birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. She couldn't spit out this simple phrase with 6 repetitions under her belt and I'd exhausted personal holidays and had to start having her practice with other holidays with a set date. When I asked her "what date is Valentine's Day," she replied with "not interested." At this point, I wasn't sure if she was expressing that she was tired of practicing the pattern (which she was not getting right at all anyway) or if she was doing her usual "guess the meaning of the question from one word" routine but I concluded the former from her less than enthusiastic efforts to apply herself. I told her (with I'm sure what was thinly-disguised exasperation) that she could talk about what she was interested in or what would fix her broken English. She settled down a bit after that but I realized that this wasn't the lesson she wanted. What she wanted was the magic English pill.

There are some students who take English lessons thinking that the very act of scheduling them, paying for them, and sitting in the presence of a foreigner who smiles at them and asks questions they are vaguely capable of understanding and replying to will improve their English ability. What's more, they figure doing this one hour a week is enough. These students think that there is some magical process of osmosis that occurs in the presence of a gaijin which improves their English by association. They don't study at all on their own. They don't do homework. They don't do anything but sit there during a lesson and either babble or listen to you babble. What these students want is to take one simple action and be better, like swallowing a pill and quickly getting well when one is sick.

The problem is that this simply doesn't work. While some students with sufficiently advanced abilities really just need to practice and benefit from free conversation, those of low or poor ability need to first focus on basics and the only way they can learn them is by studying on their own and practicing with the teacher or practicing copiously with the teacher. My student doesn't appear to want to do either as she rejected doing homework of any kind and seemed put out by practicing.

I've decided that, if she doesn't settle down in the next 3 lessons, I'm going to have to ask the agency to give her to someone else. I'm reluctant to do this mainly because the psychological implications of being rejected by a teacher are pretty bad. After all, if I won't spend an hour with someone even when they're paying me to do so, what does it say about them? I'd rather she rejected me than I had to reject her.

The reason I'm giving her 6 lessons is that the first two don't really count and I want to see how she copes once I lay down a pattern in the lessons which she can expect and perhaps deal with better. I'm not holding out much hope though. I think she's essentially looking for a gaijin buddy to pass the time with and thinking that'll improve her speaking. While some teachers might be content to sit there and make up nonsense topics so she can blather on about the minutiae of daily life, I'm not one of them. I'm not that hard up for money.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Shared Success

For the past several months, I've been working with a student who wanted to enter a college at one of the military bases. She started out coming once a week but, as the interview approached, she started to take lessons 2-4 times a week. She also practiced hard and studied hard on her own. We both busted our asses to get everything in order for her. On my part, I researched her college and the details of attending it. I helped her construct her essay and personal profile as well as fill out the forms. I did a lot of this outside of the lesson time because I respected her goal and wanted to help. Of course, I also practiced questioning her until we were both completely sick of it.

Her interview was today and I am pleased to say that she was accepted. I knew she very likely would get in but she had read some things on the web from other students about the interview process which made her worry about what was going to happen. She was also very intimidated when she learned that part of the interview was going to be conducted with two other students because she assumed they would speak English better than her and she'd look bad by comparison.

The truth is that I suspected it would all turn out to be much easier than the type of interview that we had been practicing. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case but I'm sure that preparing for a hard interview was the best course of action.

This is the first time I've worked with a student from beginning to end personally to help achieve a tangible goal and it's immensely gratifying to have it turn out well at the end. I'll still be working with her from now but it'll be assisting her with her classes and whatever else she needs to succeed now that's she's gotten into the school. If every student were like her, I'd probably enjoy teaching all the time. As you'll learn in a future post about another student, they're not all as satisfying to work with.

What I'm Reading

Logo pinched from BlogD but at least it's not hotlinked!

This is more of a guilty admission than anything else. It's not because I feel guilty for reading what I'm reading but because it's taken me so long to read the book I'm currently working on for reasons that aren't especially flattering to me. My husband wrote 3 novel-length Harry Potter 'fan fiction' stories quite awhile ago which have been enthusiastically received by many readers both through my brother-in-law's blog (from which they can be downloaded) and a Harry Potter fan site called Fiction Alley.

While my husband was writing these, we had some conflicts early on in the process because I offered him input which he rejected and the subsequent arguing left a lingering sense of anxiety when it came to his stories. I also have to admit that he put a tremendous amount of time in them, sometimes at my expense and that resentment of our lost time together was attached to the stories as well.

Much time has since passed and I've finally separated all the emotional baggage from the experience of reading the books and am about 90% through his first story. I'm enjoying the story very much and, as many readers have done, I'm losing sleep trying to finish the story.

My husband's stories were written before Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and two of them take place in year 6 and year 7 of Harry's time at Hogwarts. I can't say much about the second or third books though as I have't gotten to them yet. I can say that a lot of the things J.K. Rowling does which are irritating are absent in his stories albeit at the expense of advancing the maturity of the characters beyond their chronological years in some cases. However, it's a small price to pay for the lack of abject stupidity and one-dimensional character behavior you see in some of her books. If you are a big Harry Potter fan and can open your mind to an 'alternate history' version of the series, you'll enjoy the stories very much. I recommend you download them from BlogD and treat yourself to his work. And I'm not just saying that because he's my husband. You can read the Fiction Alley feedback on his stories to see other perspectives.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Corn Consumption in Japan

I dedicate this post to 0tarin, who thinks I made up corn 'cup-a-soup'.

Many foreigners have posted about the odd uses of corn in Japan, particularly the preoccupation with putting it on pizza. I have to admit that one of my earliest fast food dining experiences resulted in a similar appalled reaction. I was at Shakey's pizza where they offered an "all you can eat" buffet which included corn pizza. It was more of a "nothing you can eat" experience for my husband and I.

I'm not much of a fan of corn but I have become really attached to 'corn cream soup', especially when I can toss a ton of American Cardini's croutons in it (from Costco in Japan). I'm sure that makes it doubly bad for me; a real carbohydate-loaded treat.

Rumor has it that the Japanese have been known to put corn on ice cream but I've never actually seen that. I have seen my fair share of buns at convenience stores and bakeries that lovingly cradle a generous bed of mayonnaise studded with corn in the center. I'm too scared and disgusted to brave eating one but I have to admit that these buns represent overuse of two of the most oddly-used western foodstuffs in Japan.

I did a little research and apparently the Japanese corn growers can't keep up with the insatiable demand for canned and frozen sweet corn in Japan and most of it is imported from the U.S. Eighty percent of Japan's corn is from imports but very little of it appears to be fresh. Its' relatively rare to see ears of fresh corn at local shops and it's usually pretty expensive.

Incidentally, the cup in the picture was part of a set of dishes I was given when I left my company after working there for 12 years. All of them are largely white with a swirly pattern.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Installing a New Video Card

Mmmm. Cheap video card. Tasty.

In some ways, I'm a typical female with stereotypical interests and habits. I like to cook and I sort of enjoy housework most of the time. I also love having long hair despite the trouble it is to take care of and won't sacrifice it to age as many women do. In other ways, I'm not very girly at all. I don't like clothes or jewelry and I don't shop recreationally.

One of the ways in which I'm not a typical female is that I'm not intimidated by cracking open a computer case and tinkering with the insides. I'm also not much bothered by messing around with the software though I often find that a more frustrating experience. When my PC started to show its age to the extent that there things it was too old and doddering to accomplish, I didn't hesitate to perform a little internal surgery to boost its sagging capability.

I'd been wanting for some time to get into a new multiplayer game and my sister and an old friend of mine from my days of playing Diablo II on Blizzard's Battle.net talked about it and decided to try out Guild Wars. Guild Wars isn't a new game so it doesn't expect too much from a machine but my computer's integrated video wasn't going to cut it.

My sister helped me locate a video card which would work with the game and my aging eMachine and helped me buy it. One annoying fact is that most computer-related hardware and all software cannot be exported from the U.S. to Japan. I'm sure this is to protect the Japanese market for such items but it's a pain because I want English software to go with my hardware and the prices are much higher in Japan for comparable items. In the case of the video card I bought, it was only $71 in the U.S. and the cheapest card (with only 64 MB of RAM) on Amazon Japan was around $90. So, I had to have it shipped to my sister then she shipped it to me. That's why the box in the top picture is a bit beat up.

The card I bought is an nVidia GeForce 5200 FX with 256 MB DDR. It's a PCI card which I chose largely because I'm familiar with them and would know what to do with it. The PC users in my life told me it's more common to install an AGP card for video on PCs but I had no idea what that was and didn't want to horse around with anything new. It didn't hurt that this card was available at a good price and has dual-video support and S-video (attributes which my integrated video chip does not have).

Please note that you can see much larger and more detailed pictures if you click on the ones featured in this post. Some of the later shots require a closer look to see what I'm talking about.

Two screws to remove and you're in.

I've tinkered with the insides of my PC twice before (once to install RAM and once to install a Firewire card) so getting into it wasn't anything new. It's pretty nicely designed such that you unscrew two screws from the back and slide off the side panel to access the interior. I'm very paranoid about being in the guts of the PC when it comes to static so I touch the power casing any time I stand up and walk across the carpeted floor in between varous procedures as well as at the outset of the operation.

Unfortunately, I also have enough experience to know what to expect inside of a PC that hasn't been touched for awhile. It was full of copious amounts of dust. If nothing else, installing an upgrade to it once in awhile gives me a reason to dig out the compressed air and blow it all out.


I decided to hold the computer on the edge of the sink and blow the dust into it. It was a huge amount of dust that completely coated the bottom and clogged up the sink trap when I hosed it all out. It also blew all over areas around the side so I'll have a bit of clean up to do.

My card's future home.

After that housekeeping, I had to remove the bracket from the slot . These brackets are there to keep even more dust from getting into the back of the computer through an empty, gaping hole which would be there if no expansion card was installed. You can't actually see the PCI slot because it's covered by the Firewire card that's already there. However, in the smaller red rectangle above, I've pointed out another (filled) slot.

My PC has 3 PCI slots and I'm not sure what is in the top one. It looks like two ethernet jacks but it could be two telephone connection areas. That wouldn't make sense since both a LAN and phone jack are elsewhere on the back. The card was there when I bought the PC and there's a sticker next to the two jacks which shows a Canadian flag so it might have to do with something special when using a computer in Canada. Regardless, if I ever need that 3rd slot, I'm giving that card the heave-ho as I've never used those jacks.

You've got a date with the trashcan.

Once the bracket is removed, you don't really need to save it because it's unlikely that one will remove a card and need to cover the hole. However, it's important to save the screw since it will be screwed into the same spot once the card is installed.

Here's the card itself. It has a pretty large heat sink and no power connector. Another reason that I liked this card was that I didn't want to mess around trying to figure out where to move wires around. I'm pretty sure an AGP card would have required me to connect some juice to it but what do I know?

Our new friend Mr. Video Card has joined our old friend, Mr. Firewire Card.

The card goes into the slot easily though I had to put the PC on its side to push it firmly in. With all its little jutting doodads, it puts the other cards to shame in terms of having a look of intimidating complexity.

I knew that the physical installation was going to be the easy part. Once I slid the side panel back on, put the screws in and re-attached the nest of snakes to the back, the potentially hairy part began. While Macs and PCs are pretty similar when tinkering with their guts, they aren't quite the same when dealing with driver software and configuring things. The PC is always trickier because there are still arcane ways of dealing with things and I was a bit rusty on a few points. I was hoping I wouldn't have to dust off my knowledge and put it to work.

I booted up the computer and all looked okay at first glance though the resolution had swapped to 600 X 800. Since the monitor was now hooked up to the PCI card, I figured this was the best XP's default driver could do so I loaded up the nVidia drivers and restarted. At this point, the Windows logo came up followed by the eMachine's logo then a terminal black screen. I knew that I'd probably have to disable the old video card driver as a first troubleshooting step if this happened.

The problem was that I couldn't quite remember which Fkey to press to start Windows in 'Safe Mode' or to make various hardware choices on start-up. After fumbling about a bit, I managed to mess things up enough that Windows offered me the option to start in Safe Mode and from there I stumbled around and disabled the old video driver. Upon restart, all was right with the world again.

Shortly after this screenshot, I got my sister's character killed. Sorry, Sharon!

As the first test, I ran Guild Wars (screenshot above) and it looked pretty snazzy. Unfortunately, having no clue what I was doing, I ran close enough to some enemies that they set me on fire and I died. Hopefully, when I start to play in earnest, my sister will save me from myself in this regard.

I've already noticed other improvements since installing the card. Photoshop redraw is much faster. I'm guessing that video playback will also look spiffier. I haven't figured out how to get the S-video out working yet but I'm hoping to get that rolling soon as well so I can compare it to using the Mac Mini for video watching on television. All in all, it was well worth the $70.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I've been sick now for a week and only had one real day of rest yesterday. One thing about trying to buck up and work your way through rather than relax and take the time to get better is that you don't get much better very rapidly. While I can say I didn't cancel one private lesson because of my cold, I can also say I had a coughing fit in each and every lesson. Talking tends to cause you to erupt into uncontrollable fits of coughing when you have a cold mainly centered in your chest. The annoying thing is that students will invariably assume it's your throat and encourage you to drink water but it won't help at all. What I really needed was an expectorant but I'm too tired to go to a pharmacy to buy one and too stubborn to go to a doctor.

Going to the doctor, is, of course, another highly recommended action. Everyone tells me to go to a doctor as if he will magically cure my cold. I hate the fact that people go to doctors for colds instead of just resting and getting lots of fluids. It's a waste of the socialized health care funds which mainly seems geared toward medicating symptoms sufficiently to allow sick people to go to work and infect the rest of their office and everyone on the train who they cough all over with their uncovered mouths. My students don't believe me when I tell them there is no cure for the common cold. They just think I'm some wacky primitive. In fact, one of them actually said I was adhering to some sort of "primitive" healing philosophy but she used to be a pharmacist so she's probably more fond of medication than most.

The only thing worse than the coughing fits in the middle of lessons is the stuffy nose which can't be blown. In Japanese society, it's considered rude to blow your nose but okay to "sniffle" constantly. That means that you hear people snorting up gobs all the time (and sometimes get to see them spitting them out so everyone else gets a chance to step in them). It's really pretty disgusting but I guess part of being culturally open and trying not to be ethnocentric is seeing such behavior as different rather than gross.

Hopefully, this will soon pass and I'll be back to regular posting and whatnot in the near future.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Japanese Working Syle

Last Saturday, one of my students called and cancelled her lesson because she had worked all night and was too wrecked physically to maker her lesson. This is relatively common behavior among some Japanese employees. In fact, back at my former company, I came in one Saturday morning to find that one of the salesmen had worked all Friday night.

Since these workers are salaried, they don't get paid for the overtime and, more often than not, they don't take compensation time. I've often asked them why they are required to do this. They usually tell me that it is somehow their own fault. The most common excuse is that he or she is too slow and incompetent. My student said she is essentially a perfectionist. My husband's students have said that the company is understaffed and that requires them to work a lot of overtime, but mine seem reluctant to blame the company.

I asked my student why, when things got busy, that someone else in the office didn't pick up the slack. She said that the company is organized in such a way that each person is relatively specialized and can't really accomplish the tasks of other employees. I'm not sure if this situation is particular to her company or common in all Japanese companies but I do know that such specialization was not uncommon among the Japanese staff in my former office. The strange thing was that it wasn't the case among the foreign staff. We could do almost every aspect of each other's work so that, if someone was sick or took a vacation, he or she could be covered for.

I'm not sure if this situation is by design or a byproduct of some cultural aspect which I'm not aware of but it sure allows the companies to take advantage of their employees and discourage the taking of vacation time. If you are the only one in your section who can accomplish a task, your absence for any reason not only results in that work not getting done for the duration but also ensures you will return to a huge pile of work and have to endure a lot of overtime to get caught up.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Posting about a Christmas ornament I received (happily) in October may seem a bit hypocritical after I commented rather unfavorably about how outrageously early it was for convenience stores to start advertising Christmas cakes. I respectfully say that this is rather different.

I ordered the ornament above a little less than 2 weeks ago from 'N Toonz and got it yesterday. The character is from one of my favorite web comics, Melonpool. Sammy is a 200 lb. hamster that runs in a huge hamster wheel to power a spaceship. I have a special affinity for big, dumb creatures as well as web comics with well-developed characters. I'm very pleased with how well this three-dimensional representation of a two-dimensional character came out. It's custom-made and you can see some thumbprints in the polymer clay if you click and observe the bigger picture.

I'm not usually a fan of knickknacks or little dust catchers but this character is near and dear to my heart and each ornament is a limited edition for the year in which its produced. If I had a Christmas tree (or a place to put one), I'd happily hang it on it each year. Since I won't have one while I live in my tiny apartment, he'll have to sit on my computer desk year 'round. What a shame. ;-)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

So Busy (part 2)

InDesign is the bee's knees.

As I posted yesterday, I've been very busy lately. Part of it is the extra work I mentioned. The other part of it is volunteer work that I've been doing for my sister's library. As a fund-raising project, her library is making a community cookbook that they'd like to start selling in November (so that people can buy it in time to give to others as a Christmas present). Since I enjoy doing page layout, I offered to take care of that part of the project.

About a week ago, I was sent the recipes in Microsoft Word document format and have been wrestling with them ever since. The main problem is that several people entered the data and it's in different styles and formats. The bigger problem with this is that some of them were very literal with how they transcribed the recipes, even when the original recipes were relatively badly-written from the viewpoint of being in a cookbook.

Fortunately, one of my friends from my gaming days on Battle.net agreed to help out by editing and proofreading the book. Unfortunately, no matter how well he finds the mistakes, they don't magically fix themselves. I've got to go through and enter the corrections and this is pretty time-consuming as well. Since the deadline is looming, I'm putting a lot of time into it to try and get it done in time.

I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining. I really do enjoy this type of work. It's just sucking up some of the time I used to spend blogging.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

So Busy (part 1)

For an unemployed person, I'm incredibly busy these days. I've been wanting to post for several days now but have been completely swamped with various tasks. I posted a short while ago about the freelance work I sometimes do for my former company. I also said that part of it is sporadic but I suddenly have found myself getting more of the report correction work.

Apparently, my former company is moving ahead into the technological age (though they're still about a decade or more behind everyone else). They've decided that they're going to start filming classroom lessons. The fellow who replaced me has film experience and has been put in charge of setting it all up. This leaves him with little time to do the job he was hired for with the storyboarding and whatever else you do when filming piddly little videos for small companies that barely eek out a profit. So, I've been marking the reports while he plays Spielberg. He's even going to head off to China in 2 weeks to film there so this work isn't going to stop any time soon.

The picture above is one day's delivery. I get sent a bag with 25-40 reports by courier and send them back C.O.D. as quickly as possible (usually the evening of the day I receive them). Each report has two lessons with two parts each. The first part is a list of 10 short answers to a listening exercise. The second part is a longer, and sometimes very poorly-written, essay-style section. The whole point of these correspondence lessons is to give the students practice with all the basics - listening, reading, writing, and then speaking on the telephone to test how well they grasped the concepts they studied in the textbook. I don't do the telephone calls for these though as they require access to the company's internal database and they're so overly squeamish about security that they won't hook me up remotely. My replacement is still doing the calls that go along with the reports.

The work usually takes between 2-4 hours depending on how many reports I'm sent and I get paid by the piece (250 yen each). It's actually not a bad deal though not exceptionally lucrative. It probably pays no worse than teaching private lessons when I average out the time it takes but is a far more relaxed experience. Doing these on top of my private teaching and another large project that I'll post about next time (when I have the time) is eating up all of my free time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Access for the Handicapped in Tokyo

Most people who live in Tokyo know that access for handicapped people has been improving over the last decade. It's gone from nearly non-existent to being available in most major stations and stores. It's still unavailable on the older subway lies, particularly at the stations which are not major business hubs.

I'm smack in the middle of two Marunouchi line stations and neither has access via any means other than very long concrete steps. When someone in a wheelchair needs to use the station, they have to call the station beforehand and arrange to be carried up and down the steps by station personnel.

When I've witnessed this happening, I've often wondered how the person in the chair feels. Do they feel helpless or degraded because of this need to rely on others? Or do they feel grateful they're being helped? I can't say I could ever really understand until I'd experienced their situation. I can only say it'd probably make me feel diminished in some way but I say that without having made the transition handicapped people must make mentally when adjusting to their situation.

At any rate, the reason this came to mind today was that I witnessed an unusual, but I'm sure not atypical, access problem today. I was leaving the local QQ (99 yen shop, like a dollar shop) after picking up milk and yogurt and there was a man in a wheelchair sitting outside the shop. I thought he was probably looking at the drinks and fruit that are stacked outside the shop trying to decide what he wanted to buy.

As I was getting on my bike, a clerk from inside the shop came out with a bag with some items and gave the man change. What was clear from the exchange, and from the layout of the store, was that the man had to ask the store clerk to buy what he wanted because the aisles were too cluttered for him to shop inside for himself.

Aisles in Japanese shops are hardly spacious but even these ones were likely wide enough to accommodate the man's wheelchair as it wasn't an especially big one. The problem was that, as is often the case with Japanese markets, there were stacks of boxes partially blocking the end caps of every aisle such that one person can barely squeeze by. The shops do this because they're so small that they don't have as much space to display items as they'd like, but it is annoying despite the good excuse. If you are carrying shopping bags, or wearing a backpack, it's easy enough to accidentally topple stacked items in these makeshift "displays" with one false move.

I'm guessing people in wheelchairs tend to avoid shops with such limited access but the QQ shop is unusually cheap for some grocery items, particularly if you want to buy certain types of prepackaged food (which you may want to do if you're handicapped and have problems preparing food). I felt rather bad for this man that he couldn't even go in and have the small privilege of choosing his own items because of this troublesome tendency in the shops. Maybe he didn't even care and was just as happy not to bother but I know it'd probably bug me.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


It's been a good year. The herd has grown.

There are two kinds of freebies in Japan. One is the same type you get in the U.S., the kind that come attached to products. The picture above is of some magnetized cow clips which come on cartons of cream. As you can see, they come in their own little plastic barn. ;-) This is actually one of the more utilitarian freebies since they stick to the fridge and you can clip little notes on them or you can use them to hold smallish plastic bags closed.

In the past, some of the freebies we've gotten have been relatively collectable. In fact, we've sold some of the little Disney-themed doodads on eBay. Coca-cola put little plastic fish in bags around the necks of Diet Coke when "Finding Nemo" came out. We buy Diet Coke anyway so we tossed them in a pile and offered them up for auction. Disney-themed items are particularly collectable if they are Japan-only, as are Coca-Cola items.

A little something to keep you regular.

The other type of freebie, and I don't know if cities in the U.S. do this, are the packets of samples or items with advertising attached to them which are handed out on the streets. The Shinjuku area is one of the better places to get these types of freebies because the people who distribute them like to be near a hub of high activity. The most common freebie is a packet of pocket tissues with an ad in the back. In fact, if you work somewhere with a big station, you may never need to buy tissues again if you're willing to put up with the variety which resembles newspaper in texture.

You also find that sometimes little food or personal care samples are given out though the latter seems to be selectively handed to people. For instance, hand lotion or shampoo and conditioner samples will often only be given to women. Sometimes the distributors won't give the samples to foreigners. My husband and I have passed by many people who don't even stick a hand out to offer an item to us. I guess this is because they feel we can't read the advertisements that come with them.

The packet above is maple and honey-flavored "all-bran crisp". It was little triangle-shaped crackers that are supposed to be full of fibery goodness. I've actually purchased this product before in an almost identical form except it was in a packet which was bar shaped. They're pretty good though really too full of sugar to be too good for you.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Gifts from Students

The makings of a complete tea time snack

One constant about Japanese people is that they give gifts, especially souvenirs from their travels. Teachers in particular are recipients of their largesse. Since my husband sees a great many people each day at the conversation school where he works, it's not uncommon for him to bring home little surprises that students have given him. The above picture was today's takings. I first heard of Geisha chocolate, a Finnish confection, from Roy's blog. Roy didn't say anything about how good it is. It's full of extremely yummy hazelnut filling. The types of tea are written in Finnish but I believe it's vanilla, rooibos, and quince (vanilj, rooibos, and kvitten).

In the past, he's been given wine, dates, sake, various candies and cookies, bean cakes, mochi, nuts, maple syrup, coffee beans and wafers. My students have given me manju, green tea, lavender hand lotion and liquid soap, herbal tea, chocolate, fruit jellies, hand towels and, recently, ear medicine for my husband's ear blockage problems. They are nothing if not generous and inventive.

I've noticed my husband receives more food than anything else and I receive a mixture of food and personal items. I'm not sure if this is because I'm a woman or if it has to do with my teaching from the house and being a housewife. I tend to suspect it's the former.

Of course, the Japanese give each other gifts frequently as well. At weddings, each guest receives a bag (sometimes large, sometimes small) with souvenirs of the wedding. It's a nice custom though it tends to become a burden for them at times. More than one person has told me that the expense and obligation of gift-giving can be a bit tedious for them at times. That's not to say they don't often gladly give gifts, particularly to foreigners who they are under no obligation to give anything to.

One of my students told me about an experience he had recently related to gift-giving. An American couple that visited Japan recently had dinner with his wife and he and another Japanese couple at the other couple's home in Tokyo. He and his wife gave the Americans a framed picture of Mt. Fuji and the other couple gave them some Japanese lacquerware. The American couple didn't speak Japanese at all so the Japanese couples did their best to muddle through in English. Unfortunately, my student isn't very proficient though he tries hard.

When the American couple was preparing to leave, my student, a 64-year-old man, noticed that they had left their gifts in the corner of the room they had dined in. He said, "don't forget to leave it (the gifts) over there." The American man looked at him with great puzzlement and my student wondered what happened. When he explained it to me in the lesson, he was very embarrassed to realize he'd essentially said the opposite of what he wanted to say.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Coconut Muffins

As I mentioned before, I love coconut and decided some time ago that I'd like to give coconut muffins a try. Unfortunately, the recipes I'd tried up to this point turned out relatively poorly. Since unsweetened coconut is expensive and hard to find in Tokyo, this is pretty annoying since it wastes it.

After some experimenting, I finally came up with a low sugar muffin which has great texture. If you're in Japan, you can get unsweetened flaked coconut through Tengu Natrual Foods and granular Splenda from the Foreign Buyer's Club. If you're in the U.S., you can probably truck on over to your local market. :-p

If you live in Japan but don't have muffin cups, you can buy them at a branch of Tokyu Hands relatively cheaply.

Here's the recipe:

1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
2 cups white flour
1 T. baking powder
2 T. granulated sugar
1 cup granular Splenda
1 t. salt
1 T. honey
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil

Mix the coconut, Splenda, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the honey, egg, milk, and oil. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring until just mixed. The batter should be lumpy but the flour should be incorporated. Spray the bottoms only of muffin cups with non-stick spray (or use paper). Fill cups about 2/3 of the way with batter. Bake at 190 degrees C or 375 degrees F for 15 minutes.

By the way, the reason that you shouldn't overmix muffin batter is that it overworks the gluten in the flour and creates muffins with a tough texture and tunnels. This is less likely to happen with cake batter because there's a higher liquid content in it though, in general, it's a good idea never to overwork the batter or dough for anything containing flour except bread (which benefits from gluten development).

I toss these in a Ziploc bag and freeze them and thaw them as desired. They're great with a cup of tea in the morning or as a tea time treat. Yum!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Order Your Christmas Cake Now!

This morning I went out early to get some milk from a convenience store and found the flier pictured above in the bag when I got home. Today is October 7 and Christmas cakes are already being advertised? I thought the U.S. pushed Christmas early and often but this definitely has it beat. I guess that, without Halloween to peddle extra wares, the Japanese shops have to milk Christmas for all its worth.

For my friends in the U.S., I'll explain a few things about Japan and Christmas. First of all, it's not a national holiday here. It's more akin to the way Valentine's Day or Halloween are regarded in the states. You don't get the day off but there's junk around to remind you to consume as many holiday-themed goods as possible.

Additionally, the Japanese celebrate differently. It's generally not celebrated as a family holiday. In fact, one of the traditions is for young men to give their girlfriends expensive jewelry (a Tiffany's box is a plus) and go for a night of action at a (usually expensive) hotel.

Another tradition is eating Christmas cake. I'm not sure where the notion that this type of thing is traditional in the west comes from but, unless they've been told otherwise, many Japanese people think occidentals celebrate Christmas by having a birthday-cake style cake and having a party. If you click on the picture of the flier above and load the bigger version, you can see the types of cakes more clearly. Of course, they also have to have plastic Santas on them!

As an aside, since I was feeling lazier than usual, I indulged in a carton of wicked Milk Tea. I love this drink but only indulge in it about 4 times a year because it is incredibly bad for you. In addition to being as full of sugar as a soft drink, it also contains coconut oil. Given my fondness for coconut, this is probably one of the reasons I like this tea so much. It has a nice floral tea taste as well so that helps. Ironically, while I love this pre-made Lipton tea, I'm generally not keen on their teabags as they are weak and bitter (especially what is sold under a yellow label in Japan). My former boss used to say he thought Lipton teabags were made with the sweepings from the floor where they process the tea.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Joyless Practice

One of my private students called me this evening and asked me to watch channel 8 between 5:00 and 6:00 pm because her daughter's dance drill team (a precision cheerleading squad) was going to be featured on the news. Her daughter is 16 or 17 years old and her team went to the U.S. to compete earlier this year.

On more than one occasion, my student has expressed concern about her daughter's involvement in this sort of practice. While her daughter likes being a part of it, it's very time-consuming. In fact, my student has said that her daughter has not started to study for university entrance exams and sometimes practices in every free moment of a day at school and every weekend. The coach often pushes the girls to train through lunch so they don't get to eat for over 12 hours at times.

The T.V. program on Fuji TV tonight brought this home in a way my student couldn't express. There were many scenes of an old battle axe of a coach snapping and barking at the girls while they practiced. There were even more scenes of the girls standing in hallways out of view of the coach crying and sobbing in frustration. Except when they were putting on plastic smiles while performing, they rarely looked remotely happy. Even when they weren't sobbing, they were frowning deeply as the coach sternly talked to them.

The show pointed out how precise their movements have to be because their legs have to be in the air in the same position at all times or they have to jump and have their dance moves down pat but this was absurd. It reminds me of the way my husband told me Japanese baseball teams practiced according to "You Gotta Have Wa".

The whole show aside from a tearful speech, with lipstick-covered teeth, by the team leader and a rare smile by the old coach, made the experience look joyless and as if these girls were being pushed constantly to act like machines. While I'm sure coaches of these types of teams in other countries push their participants hard, I don't imagine they never offer a smile or encouragement, nor do they have to have meetings with concerned mothers who are afraid their daughters are being pushed too hard week after week. I think the non-demonstrative nature of Japanese people and the value of stoicism in the culture makes this sort of situation much harder on them than their western counterparts who probably get a hug, a pat on the back or a kind word along with the coaches commands.

The worst part is that it doesn't necessarily make them better at what they do. While my student's daughter's team fares well in Japan, they didn't win in international competition in the U.S. She desperately wants her daughter to quit but knows that she can't force her to do so.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Freelance Work

About a year ago, I quit the full-time job that I had held for 12 years so I could stay home and deal with a variety of health problems. I remained at that job far longer than I should have because, for the most part, I liked the work and I loved my boss. When I left, I made it clear that it had nothing to do with the company itself and everything to do with me.

Because of the good relationship I have with them, I occasionally do freelance work for them. It's unpredicatable and sporadic but adds a small amount to my monthly part-time income. It also gives me a way to have contact with my former boss and still feel like a part of the company. I'm not sure why I value that in any way. Perhaps all the years where the former president kept telling us we were like a family finally brain-washed me into thinking that's what we were. Or, perhaps it has more to do with having done a fairly sizable body of work with them in the form of writing textbooks and classroom materials such that I feel there is a legacy there which I have some need to tether myself to.

Anyway, there are two types of freelance work that I do. One is correcting correspondence lessons when the teacher in charge is absent for one reason or another for an extended period of time. This is somewhat uncommon though I did get a fair amount of this type of work last year when the teacher was tossed in jail for 3 weeks after getting into a fight at a soccer game. The other work I do, and I do it fairly regularly, is evaluation of student level by telephone. In fact, I've got 4 hours of that work this week.

These evaluations are 10-minute telephone calls where I ask a set list of questions about the student personally and his or her job. I enter scores based on ability in 5 categories (accuracy, listening, vocabulary, pronunciation, and overall competence). The scores are used to assign a level based on my former company's proprietary scoring system and then the students are divided into groups based on their levels in preparation for in-company English training.

Of course, the purpose of the evaluations is sometimes an "in theory" situation because the students are divided into classes before the tests are done. I have to wonder how the salesmen manage to convince the company that this is worthwhile in such cases but I guess that part of it is for pre- and post-training evaluation. At times, I end up doing two tests months apart and the scores are compared to see whether or not a student got better after taking a sequence of in-company lessons.

One off-shoot of doing this type of work is that you develop pretty impeccable phone manners and get good at carrying on phone conversations with people who have difficulty communicating.

As an aside, I'll note that the data is entered into a Filemaker Pro database. The original database was created in Windows '98 on a PC. However, I can't open the file on my Windows XP PC with any version of Filemaker Pro but I can open it on the Mac under OS X. This sort of situation has actually been fairly common in my experience. Back when I was still using floppies, Windows floppies often could be read on the Mac when they wouldn't work on a PC. It used to amuse me greatly that a Windows to Windows transfer wouldn't work (between two identical machines running the same flavor of Windows) but the Mac DOS-formatted floppy disks always worked in any PC. I'm not sure why Macs are more flexible in this regard but they have pretty much been this way since OS 9.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Very Hard to Find Items

One of the most frustrating things about living in Japan is that, when you really need an item which is basic and easy to find in the U.S., it can be nearly impossible to find in Japan.

My husband returned to a local fitness club after a long absence so he could start swimming again. Unfortunately, he forgot to put in ear plugs before he swam and got water in both of his ears. He further made a mistake when he used a Q-Tip to try and get it out causing it to block up more. Now he knows that was a bad idea but he wasn't aware of that until it was too late. His hearing has been fairly diminished as a result of this problem and there is some concern that, if it can't be cleared up, he'll develop swimmer's ear.

Since he teaches and needs to be able to hear well, it's rather imperative that he clear this up. After we researched the problem, we discovered that it's common in the U.S. to buy ear drops that will dry your ears up. After enquiring at 3 local pharmacies, he discovered that such drops aren't available in Japan and the only way to deal with this common, minor and easy to fix problem is to run off to a doctor. Hurray for the side effects of socialized medicine. :-p

Rather than waste time and money going to a doctor, he investigated other options. Apparently, common treatment includes putting some drops of rubbing alcohol in your ear to dry up the moisture or a mixture of both alcohol and vinegar to kill bacteria and dry the ear.

In the U.S., both rubbing alcohol and distilled vinegar can be bought at nearly any supermarket or, at worst, a supermarket and drug store. In Japan, finding either of these items requires you to go to stores that specialize in selling items for foreigners. There may be some places that sell them but none appear to be in my area.

There is a wide variety of vinegar in most supermarkets but pure, distilled white vinegar doesn't appear to be in much demand and this is what you need for medicinal purposes. My husband had to go to National Azabu Supermarket in Hiroo to locate some. Rubbing alcohol also was tough to find but he located it at Koyasu Pharmacy in Hiroo. It was quite expensive as well. The bottle shown above was about $11 (1200 yen).

My husband decided to avail himself of the rare chance to indulge in some western sweets while he was there and picked up a couple of bags of Halloween candy. I haven't seen an Almond Joy in a decade or more and it's one of my favorite candies because I love coconut. Since I try not to eat sugar, this bag should last quite awhile. The marshmallow pumpkins are chocolate covered orange-flavored marshmallows and, while not bad, are not exactly a normal combination of flavors.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

More Gifts in Apology

This morning while I was groggily making coffee, I heard something get pushed through the mail slot and saw the note pictured above (click on the picture to see a large one that you can actually read). This note is from our landlord and, while it doesn't state explicitly so, I'm sure this is another gift because of the trouble they feel we were put through because of the renovation in the kitchen.

It was very nice of them to do this, particularly given how special they feel this food is and how troublesome it is to obtain.

My husband and I gave the meatballs a try and they're pretty good though I'm not especially a fan of fried food. They're kind of like a meatball tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet). They're quite huge and taste a lot like meatloaf inside.

The note and the fact that people line up for these meatballs reminds me of these types of food fads in Japan where there are certain places people line up to get things. I sometimes see T.V. programs about these places where business is booming and wonder how long their popularity lasts.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

New Students

Recently, two new students were referred to me by the service that helps me find students. This is good news because it's boosts my part-time teaching income but also because it's interesting meeting new people. However, it's also stressful having a first lesson with a new person.

One of the main reasons it's difficult is that the students rarely accurately relate their level to the agency when they apply for lessons. I'm not sure if it's Japanese modesty at work or simply an inability to judge their own level but students often claim to have a much lower level than they possess. They also often say they speak poorly when they communicate pretty well. Of course, they judge themselves by comparing their ability to native speakers rather than simply considering their ability to get their message across and understand the message received.

The student I had today was intermediate to high intermediate in level but she said she was a beginner. This makes the first lesson more difficult because I prepare materials based on the expected level of the student. This afternoon, I had a very elementary lesson about basic meeting and greeting prepared only to find my student could answer nearly every free conversation question I asked with little difficulty.

Fortunately, the students erring on the side of saying their level is too low means you are pleasantly surprised when the lesson is smoother than you anticipated. I guess it's far better than the reverse situation happening.