Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bad Day

spicy Prozac

This hasn't been the worst day ever by a long shot but a few things have happened which have got me down. The main problem came with a telephone call I got this morning from the referral agency that sets me up with students. They called to say that my 3:00 pm lesson was cancelling because her son was sick. This is actually "good news" because I get paid for late cancellations but, unfortunately, that wasn't all there was to it.

One thing that people who don't live in Japan don't know (probably) is that the Japanese rarely complain about anything. When someone makes the vaguest suggestion to you, it's likely that there is actually a complaint behind it. They told me that Magic English Pill woman had said she was anxious because her vocabulary was so limited that there may be misunderstandings. She also said that she "just wanted to talk about western culture and cooking." While I'd love to talk about these things with this particular student, I can't because her level is just too low to have anything resembling a conversation about anything.

I thought I'd found a workable lesson structure with her by mixing up some attempts at chatting with some repetition and structure but it seems that she is not necessarily satisfied with that or she wouldn't have said anything to the referral agency. They did say that she is "otherwise satisfied with my lessons" but I know that a lot more lurks behind suggestions than the student lets on. I was so unhappy about this development that I wrote the referral agency a relatively longish letter explaining my conundrum and asking for their input on how I should structure lessons to satisfy her.

The main problem with this is that the agency doesn't know and probably doesn't care how her lessons are done as long as the student is happy and spends money. Most companies who sell lessons have no clue about either education or even the entertainment value of a lesson. They can't tell you how to make someone happy. They can only tell you when they're not happy.

The truth is that I'm not happy either. I was only gradually starting to cease dreading her lessons as time went by and now I'm pretty much back to square one on the "dread" scale. Since I don't need the money that desperately, I'm about as close as I can be to telling the agency to find her another teacher and let her deal with any feelings of rejection by her teacher (this was the main reason I didn't send her packing much earlier on).

On top of that, my bicycle pedal broke in an unusual way just as I was leaving on an errand. The bar connecting the two pedals seems to have come dislodged from the socket it sits in so that it dangles out of the left side. It's not actually busted but I have no idea how to get it back in so that it can move the chain properly. The odd thing is that it's the left side that fell out when I always "push off" on the right and balance when stopped by putting my left foot on the ground (so the left pedal rarely has disproportionate or unusual force placed on it). You'd think if it were to get pulled out, it'd be on the side that had the greatest force on it most frequently.

That means I'm either without a bike until next Monday when it can be taken to a shop for fixing or my husband leaves his and he's without one. Well, I can walk but with my chronic back problems, this is a bit of a hardship.

I was so depressed that, instead of putting together a nice healthy lunch, I went to a convenience store and bought a piece of greasy fried chicken (which was actually pretty good) and a bag of the new habanero chips for lunch. Pairing these with a fresh tomato probably wasn't anywhere near bringing it up to a "nutritious lunch". I very rarely do things like this but there's something about being down and buying junk food that goes hand in hand. :-p

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What I'm Reading 2

Previously, I posted that I was reading my husband's first novel-length Harry Potter fan fiction story. I actually tore my way through the other two stories in short order despite their great length. In my opinion, his writing matured remarkably from book to book with the last one written pretty much ending up as a viable novel in terms of pacing and writing style. The final book, Phoenix Intuition, was by far my favorite because the story was compelling and the pace excellent.

Ironically, the book that I liked the most was the one that the fans who read his stories on Fiction Alley (a Harry Potter fan fiction repository) liked the least. I found this somewhat curious but upon further reflection decided that it's likely that I don't read these stories with the same hopes and expectations as a fan fiction reader. I approach the books as, well, books. The average fan fiction reader is looking to vicariously experience the character's reality. They like extended scenes where the characters talk to each other and banter. I just want the story to move along.

Since finishing his Harry Potter stories (and frankly wishing there were more but not wanting to surrender my time with him to allow him to write another even if he was inclined to do so), I started reading the first book in the Dragonriders of Pern series, Dragonflight. This is a very popular and, I believe, classic fantasy series which my sister has read before. In fact, I think we picked up a used copy at Good Day Books on her recommendation.

I've nearly finished the book and, while I'm generally pleased with the "world" in which the story takes place, there are some elements that I'm rather unhappy with. Before I go about complaining, I have to admit that I'm a very harsh critic as a reader. It takes a lot to make me happy with a book and my poor husband frequently is subjected to my whining about this or that in whatever book I'm reading. That's probably why I have tended in the past to stick to non-fiction for the most part. Non-fiction can be boring or repetitive but you don't have to worry about story pacing, structure, depth or characterizations.

With Dragonflight, I was immediately turned off by the romance novel characterizations of the main male and female characters. I'm not keen on the tall, slender, long-haired, often secretly powerful heroine who is cold and calculating but eventually warms to the muscular, powerful, and strong man who pursues her. The characters do develop a bit but they never get too far above the characters you see on the cover of bodice-rippers.

If you dislike the main characters, you're pretty much left with the story and the story is pretty thin because this is the first book of a trilogy and it isn't carried very far. The basic story, which I won't spoil, is about a world where dragons are used to fight a recurrent problem that could destory the planet. There's some political infighting and a cultural overview of the society. There's also some interesting science-fiction-style development. I'm guessing the better part of the story is reserved for the remaining two novels and the first was used to establish the framework of the world and the characters.

At this point, I have to decide if the story is compelling enough to push me to move on to the next book in the series. I haven't quite made the decision yet but I'm thinking that I'll at least give something different a try before I consider reading the next Dragonriders of Pern book.

Schaedenfreude or Social Duty?

A story about a student who made a decent amount of money selling virtual weapons and gold in the on-line game World of Warcraft has been making the rounds lately. The basic gist of it is that a Chinese man who resides in Japan under a student visa was turned in for possibly violating the terms of his stay by a bank worker who noticed he was sending money home frequently.

The thing that really caught my eye was the fact that the police were notified about this by a bank worker. When my husband and I have sent money home, we have had to fill out forms that state why we are doing so. I wonder if those forms have to be turned over to the police or if the bank only has to do so at their discretion. Somehow, I imagine it must be the latter since the former would inundate the police with a lot of inconsequential paperwork. It's not the least bit uncommon for foreign workers to send money home because they are leaving Japan or they prefer to keep the money in a foreign bank because interest rates in Japan for savings accounts are something on the order of 0-.2%.

One important point about this situation is that one does not have to state one's visa status to the bank when sending money home though we do have to show them our foreign resident's card (often called a "gaijin card" by those of us living in Japan). The gaijin card does show our visa status so anyone who did the paperwork for sending money home who scrutinized the card carefully enough would see if one was a student or using a work visa.

The thing that I find troubling about this is the possibility that this is a sort of schaedenfreude (sour grapes) at a lowly Chinese student raking in the dough while living in Japan. Was he turned in because a Japanese bank worker resented seeing him make more money than himself? Or, was he turned in because the bank worker was civic-minded and told to do so? One thing that I can't help but think is that this wouldn't have happened to a white person.

There is plenty of prejudice against foreigners in Japan but the shape of it varies based on who the foreigner is. White foreigners tend to be regarded as equal or "superior" to Japanese people when prejudice applies to them. They may be seen by some as smelly, loud, overpaid and too culturally retarded to ever really grasp Japanese culture but they are not seen as socially lower than Japanese. Other Asians, on the other hand, are seen as being inferior by some Japanese. So, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if a Japanese bank worker might be upset at seeing what he felt was a lot of cash being made by a Chinese person.

The reports about how much money was being made in this endeavor seem to dramatically range from about $50,000 to $1.3 million U.S. dollars. I know on-line gaming and the claim by the police that he made over a million dollars is far-fetched unless this student was serving as a funnel for a huge operation ran elsewhere. It's inconceivable that a single person could play the game enough to acquire enough on-line currency to make that much money, not even if he played around the clock for years. If the market were that lucrative, you'd find people quitting their jobs to play the game and sell virtual items.

Since the visa status of a student allows the student to work 28 hours a week if he has received the proper permission to engage in activities other than specified by his visa, all it would take for the student to not be in violation of his visa would be for him not to spend more than 28 hours a week handling the "paperwork" for selling the items. It wouldn't matter whether he or someone else played the game as I think the Japanese police would be hard-pressed to call game playing "work", even if it was done in the service of item farming in the virtual world.

From a personal perspective, this offers no real threat to me but it does raise an issue I had never considered. I no longer remain in Japan under a work visa. I'm here under a dependent spouse visa which means I should not make enough money to support myself. And I don't do so by a very large margin. However, a very long time ago, we decided to have my husband's salary paid into my bank account in Japan (which is only in my name) because we didn't want to go to the trouble of opening up another account. If a bank worker were to only look at the record of deposits and not consider the source in any way, it may appear that I make a full salary and in violation of my terms of stay. I doubt anything would ever come of this but it does point out how bank activity can be pretty misleading in some cases and why perhaps bank workers shouldn't be monitoring activity and reporting it to the police.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Dentist Redux

Part 2 of my trip to the dentist took place this morning. As I mentioned before in "A Trip to the Dentist", I had to have it done in two visits because that's the only way Japanese national health insurance would pay for it. I investigated why this might be the case and didn't find any concrete answers. The best I can conclude based on what I learned was that the insurance doesn't specifically require multiple visits but that this is the only way doctors can charge what they want for their services inside of the fee structure the socialized insurance system forces on them.

The information I found states that there is a fixed fee schedule for any given procedure and that no doctor (or dentist) regardless of experience, expertise or antiquity or modernity of equipment may charge more or less than the fee schedule states. One of the consequences of this is that doctors offer very short consultation times and require multiple visits. The average doctor sees 49 patients a day. Thirteen percent see a hundred patients a day.

Essentially, the doctors have found a way to make more money despite the limits placed on what they may charge. Unfortunately, it's this sort of thing that supports all the arguments against socialized health insurance in the states. The Japanese situation bears out the notion that the quality of care will diminish with nationalized insurance.

My experience also bears this out and it may be one of the reasons why I've come to believe doctors never listen to their patients. My experience in Japan, except when dealing with the doctors who specialize in care for foreigners and don't take national health insurance, is that doctors spend very little time with you and shuttle you out as quickly as possible. In the case of my dental "check-up", the dentist looked at my teeth for no longer than 2 minutes, possibly less, then turned me over the the hygienist for cleaning. I believe that they had me come back for split billing. They could charge once for consultation and a second time for cleaning.

The fee schedule situation also explains the tendency among Japanese doctors to prescribe at least 3 kinds of medicine to patients during each visit. When the cost of the medicine is lower than the scheduled expense, the clinic or hospital the doctor is a part of gets to make more from the medication. Both this sort of over-prescription and short consultation times are specifically discussed in a paper I read here. It's quite interesting and I recommend anyone who wants to understand more about the structure of the health system give it a read.

After having my lower teeth scraped at and polished up, my husband, my sore gums and I went shopping for shoes. My husband has been in rather dire need of a new pair for quite some time. This was a point that was dramatically brought home by yesterday and this morning's rain.

There's a relatively cheap shoe shop in a rundown arcade near Asagaya station that we stopped in on. I was amused to see the shoes with the peculiar name pictured above. I'm guessing that "assy" is a play on a Japanese word related to being water-tight since the selling point on these shoes according to the tag is that they have special heels to prevent water from leaking into them when it rains. My husband didn't buy these particular shoes though. I'm not sure that one could buy a brand named "Dr. Assy" and wear them without feeling self-conscious. Additionally, they were more expensive than he was looking to pay. In the end, he picked up a pair of business shoes for about 4,000 yen (about $36) and new tennis shoes for about 2,000 yen (about $17).

Finally, I'd been craving a Mont Blanc for ages and hadn't been anywhere that sold decent ones so my husband suggested we visit the Cozy Corner near the station. Cozy Corner carries a variety of elaborate sweets that are heavy on the whipped cream and somewhat expensive. I think we buy something from one of these places once every 3-5 years.

I picked out two Mont Blanc from their relatively large collection of varieties. The one on the left is a "forest Mont Blanc". It includes more fresh cream filling and less cake than most of the Mont Blanc you can get in Japan as you can see from the picture below.

Mont Blanc is an Italian dessert (or French depending on what you read) which is meant to resemble a white mountain. The top is made of piped chestnut paste and the base is often meringue but all of the ones I've seen in Japan have cake as the base. The paste is made in a variety of ways but generally involves boiling chestnuts in milk, sugar and vanilla then adding in a little brandy.

These must be pretty popular in Japan because variations of them are sold in most supermarkets and convenience stores. They range from being extremely sweet to fairly bland. I prefer the less sweet variety but I'm afraid the Cozy Corner ones are really sweet. I'll have to keep that in mind in another 3 years or so when it occurs me to patronize one of them again.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Apricot Soy Muffins

I know the idea of apricot and soy flavors mixed together may not sound all that appetizing and, to be honest, I was skeptical as well. I was pleasantly surprised when these muffins turned out quite well though I will warn anyone who decides to try the recipe that you probably won't care for them if you actively dislike the taste of soy flour. Additionally, your kitchen will be filled with the distinctive, though not unpleasant, smell of soy after baking.

The texture of these muffins is very good and I credit the soy flour in part. Soy flour adds moisture as well as protein. It also can be used as a substitute for eggs (1 Tbsp. soy flour + 1 Tbsp. water per egg) if you're worried about eating eggs for special dietary reasons. Recipes for baked goods that include soy flour generally contain fewer or no eggs compared to more conventional recipes. Soy flour also increases the shelf life of baked goods so it's often added to commercially produced doughnuts, cakes, etc. to make them last longer.

In Japan, you can buy soy flour (kinako) nearly anywhere in Japan in little plastic packets. I'm pretty sure all soy flour in Japan is the full fat variety. In the U.S., defatted soy flour is often on offer because people in the states are much more concerned with fat consumption than those in Japan. In fact, the fat content of food rarely seems to concern the Japanese considering the amount of chicken skin (most chicken is sold with skin but boneless), mayonnaise, and fatty beef and pork that is included in dishes. Of course, they get away with consuming fat in their meals and staying thin because of a varied diet and relatively smallish portions of the "offending" foodstuffs.

The muffins pictured above have a teaspoon of apricot jam in them but I think they'd be quite nice on their own without the jam. They are adequately sweet enough as is and I'm considering reducing the sugar from 1/2 to 1/3 of a cup next time I make them. Here is the recipe.

Apricot Soy Muffins:

  • 1 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 C. soy flour
  • 1/2 C. sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 C. buttermilk (or 3/4 C. of regular milk plus 2 tbsp. distilled vinegar, let sit for 5 min.)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp. canola or other unflavored vegetable oil
  • 6-8 tsp. apricot jam

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. (200 degrees C.). Sift the flour, soy flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Add the sugar and cinnamon and mix the dry ingredients well. In a different bowl, whisk the buttermilk/soured milk, egg, and oil until they are well-mixed. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid ingredients at once. Stir until just moistened (batter should be lumpy). Spray the bottom only of muffin tins (or use paper liners) with non-stick spray. Fill each muffin cup about 1/3 full with batter then place a teaspoon full of jam in the center of the batter. Do no overdo the jam. Put more batter on top of the jam until each cup is about 2/3 full of batter. Bake for 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out without batter on it (there will be jam on the skewer).

Allow the muffins to cool in their tins for 10 minutes. Gently remove from muffin tins.

If your remove them too fast, the jam may leak out or the warm cake near the bottom break away and allow the jam to leak out when you remove them. I had to place them upside down on the cooling rack after taking them out of their tins because the bottoms were fragile while they were still warm. If you look at the muffin on the left in the picture, you can see it's got a couple of indentations across the top where it rested upside down on the cooling rack.

The soy flour had such a profound effect on the texture of the muffins that I think I'll start experimenting with it in sugar-free or reduced sugar recipes. Sugar adds moisture and texture to baked goods which you lose when you reduce it or cut it back. I'm wondering if the soy flour might put back in some of the properties one loses when reducing or eliminating sugar from a recipe.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Catering to a Stereotype?

This picture is specified as being in the public domain but I'll credit Wikipedia's kimono information page anyway.

In my student roster post, I mentioned a temporary student who was taking a few lessons with me to practice the type of things she might be asked in her new job at an information booth at a major international hotel. Her final lesson was last Friday and she asked to extend it to two hours because she was insecure about her ability to cope on the job. During the lesson, I asked her an exhaustive (and exhausting) series of questions that a guest might conceivably ask her in the course of her job.

When I asked her what sort of training the hotel would provide, she said they always did "on the job training". That essentially means she will sink or swim when she starts. I'm sure she'll be fine because she knew what the phrase "sink or swim" meant and her English, though far from perfect, is pretty good. The only thing I am slightly worried might be an issue is her tendency to say "saloon" instead of "salon". I don't think it would do to tell guests they can get a pedicure at the "esthetic saloon".

In addition to being concerned about her lack of training, she also said she was worried because the job required her to wear a kimono and she'd have to dress herself. For those who are not well-versed in Japanese cultural points, putting on a kimono is pretty difficult and apparently requires training and/or two people. Early on in my years in Japan, many female students would cite "wearing a kimono" as a hobby. For Americans, who have no traditional dress, the idea of learning to wear a type of clothing as a hobby seems very odd but the fact that people have to take lessons in putting it on is an indication of how complicated it can be.

Besides being difficult to put on, kimono can also be quite heavy though I think contemporary versions are likely lighter than more elaborate, traditional versions. I can't speak to how comfortable they are but I do believe that wearing one day-in and day-out while working in a hotel would probably get pretty tedious, particularly if it's a sticky business getting it on each morning. I'm guessing it's also not the easiest thing to walk around in on the subways or trains.

When I asked my student why she had to wear a kimono to answer her English-speaking guests' questions, she said that the people who run this hotel felt that foreign visitors expected it and find it more appealing when they visit Japan. The hotel is very expensive and caters to well-heeled international business travelers so this isn't some homespun ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with an idiosyncratic little shacho (president) imposing his notions on the staff. It's the equivalent of the Hilton hotel without the embarrassing heiress to drag down its reputation.

Part of me feels that this is simply good business but part of me, the part that feels sorry for my student for having to parade around in a kimono all day when it has nothing to do with the service she offers, that this is no more than catering to foreign stereotypes of Japan as the land of sumo, rikshaws, Fuji and geisha. It also has just a whiff of being patronizing toward foreign guests who the Japanese may feel just aren't ready to cope with the realities of modern Japan.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Ordering from Amazon Japan

Awhile back, I posted about my phone caterwauling at random intervals (most likely due to demonic possession). After stabbing phone-shaped voodoo dolls, calling in a telephonic priest, and just plain ignoring it and hoping it would eventually go away, we gave up and ordered a new phone from Amazon Japan.

Dealing with a Japanese web page when you don't understand most of what is written there can be rather daunting but Google's automatic translation services can help. Well, it can help a little. Anyone who thinks technology will eventually replace human translators should find any non-English page and apply a Google translation to the page and try to understand the mishmash that results.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I am familiar enough with bad translations of Japanese into English and can decode the translations fairly well. I can read a little of the Japanese (and my husband who studied kanji can read more than I) but not enough to get much of a sense of things so even bad English is better than only Japanese. Once you get through registering with Amazon Japan, they have your address and credit card information so you only have to get through the important stuff once and then just log in and buy, buy, buy thereafter with just a few clicks. If you can't read it yourself, you can get a Japanese friend or coworker to get you through the hard part, just don't forget your user name and password.

Given that Amazon Japan is as cheap or cheaper than most shops and delivers the next day in most cases, it's a pretty good place to turn to first when you need something. I've even been recommending that my students give it a go and they are pleasantly surprised. You'd think they'd investigate it on their own but the Japanese are more suspicious of on-line buying than Americans. Most of them who buy goods on-line have them delivered C.O.D. rather than use their credit cards.

it's an angelic iridescent white...hopefully, the demons will be put off

My new phone is not incredibly dissimilar from my old one functionally except for one important point. It lacks the "door phone" functionality that was malfunctioning on my old phone. If it goes wonky, it will have to do so in a different way. As an added bonus, it's supposed to allow you to talk on the cordless handset and the wired handset at the same time. So, if my husband and I want to, we could talk to someone at the same time.

Of course, this is "in theory" since neither of us are phone slaves to begin with. To illustrate this most shockingly, I'll reveal that we don't have cell phones. This point tends to flabbergast most Japanese as they can't seem to go anywhere without their phones glued to their ears, vibrating in the bags, or melded to their hands so they can peck out text messages during any spare moment. Personally, I only grudgingly keep any phone at all so I can receive calls from my student referral agency and students themselves. I can't understand the appeal of being at hand for anyone to interrupt you at any moment.

Friday, November 24, 2006

You See What You Want To See

image respectfully lifted from the fine folks at Gizmodo

This morning, while reading an article in Gizmodo on "invisible" Japanese appliances, I was struck by a thought that I have often had while dealing with students in Japan. That thought is that people see what they want to see, or, at the very least, they reach the conclusions they want to reach.

The implication of the Gizmodo article is that these appliances are going to be something a consumer can purchase and place in his or her home. While this is not impossible, I'm 99% certain that these are display models meant to showcase the capacity and technology behind the items, not actual designs that one can buy.

Reaching the wrong conclusion in this manner is something students frequently do as well. For example, if students see a documentary on the Japanese Discovery channel about American shopping habits, they see a huge shopping cart heaped full of groceries. When they compare this to the little baskets that Japanese people use, and rarely fill, on their shopping trips, they conclude that Americans eat immense quantities of food all the time. Similarly, when they go abroad and are served a huge portion at a restaurant, they feel that an average American would eat it all in one sitting. It's not until you explain to them that Americans shop infrequently (compared to Japanese who shop daily in many cases), have huge freezers where they store food for long periods of time, and that we have this concept of a "doggy bag" which allows us to enjoy the remains of a whopping restaurant-size meal the next day that they understand the truth.

I rarely see the other side of this equation; that is, western folks seeing something in Japan and reaching the wrong conclusion about it. The Gizmodo article made me think that westerners may be inclined to think the Japanese are coming up with yet another wacky invention rather than the more logical conclusion that these are design models. If I hadn't lived in Japan all this time and weren't already aware of the tendency to see what you want to see, I probably would have reached a similar conclusion.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Forbidden Dates

"Mmmm. Forbidden dates."

One of my husband's coworkers brought in some fresh dates a few weeks ago and my husband was immediately smitten with them. He enjoys dates in general but had never had fresh ones. Fresh dates are moister, softer, plumper, and less sticky-sweet than dried ones. He's had Medjool dates and other expensive premium dates but nothing as enjoyable as these.

The dates were sold at a Turkish cafe near his school in Shinjuku. They didn't have any in stock when he asked about them but said they'd call when they got some more in. Yesterday, I received the call. Unfortunately, I couldn't understand the name of the shop but they spoke English and were quite nice about offering to set some aside for him should he not be able to make it any time soon. Yesterday, he was able to squeeze in a quick trip (despite having an extremely busy and tiring day which included 8 hours and 20 minutes of face-to-face teaching) and picked up two boxes. Each box is about 800 grams and costs 650 yen. There are about 50 dates per box so the price is a relative bargain.

One of the interesting things about these dates is that they're a treat he likely couldn't have purchased in the United States. Research on the internet seems to indicate there's still a trade embargo with Iran though goods are sometimes traded through third parties. Besides oil, dates, olives and pistachios are Iran's biggest exports. Also, Japan is Iran's number one import partner though that's unlikely to be due to great quantities of fruits and nuts and more likely to be about oil.

I'd never really paid much attention to the nutrition information on dates until I saw this box. I'm surprised at how nutritious they are. Most fruit contains no or very small amounts of protein and each of these contain between 2 and 3 grams of protein. They are calorically dense but they're also not the sort of thing one is likely to sit down and scarf a lot of at one sitting. The presence of protein helps mitigate blood sugar fluctuations from eating something which is high in carbohydrates so I'm encouraging my husband to indulge in these on a regular basis.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Self-Absorption and Sibling Rivalry

One of the things that I find especially annoying in a crowded city full of shops with narrow aisles is the habit of people who stand in front of some item and needlessly ponder it; blocking all access to the item for others. Today, I was at Yutakaraya, the local extra cheap fresh food market, and wanted to get what I needed and hit the road. Unfortunately, there were two older ladies standing in front of an enormous pile of packages of onions (6 onions to a bag for 99 yen) pawing at the packages and having a discussion about them. The packages were virtually identical and there were so many of them that you couldn't possibly find the best of the lot without wasting several hours of time. I had to struggle to reach over at an angle and snag one. They never looked at me or moved an inch. This is from a group of people who generally can't resist gawking at me when I'm out and about. It's inconceivable that I'd suddenly gone invisible after many years of being so riveting that few could resist rudely staring at me.

Even when people in Tokyo know they are blocking you, they pretend that you aren't there. This is part of a relatively pervasive habit among Tokyo residents of pretending that others don't exist so that they do not have to behave politely. You see this on the trains with old people and silver seats (seats designed for the elderly and handicapped) where young and healthy people will stare zombie-like at their phones or a book and pretend they don't see the more deserving party standing in front of them.

I also encounter this on the streets when walking or riding a bike. People absolutely do not look at on-coming foot or bicycle traffic because they will have to acknowledge your existence and step a foot in a different direction. As long as they don't glance in your direction, they can continue to dreamily meander all over the sidewalk. I'm pretty sure that Tokyoites are incapable of walking in a straight line or looking in front of them after all my years here. Perhaps it's one of those genetic differences my students earnestly claim the Japanese have but foreigners don't know about or understand; like having a different digestive system which can't digest western beef.

My husband, who is not an aggressive person and is quite tolerant and patient, gets so tired of all of this shirking of personal responsibility that when he sees one of these zombies approaching, he refuses to move and just lets them plow into him. They usually say excuse me and act shocked or, worse, act as though he has acted rudely in not watching where they are going.

This may be another "city" behavior but I'm inclined to believe that pretending to be or being completely self-absorbed and oblivious to others wouldn't work quite as well in western cultures where people are likely to shout at you or at least bring your behavior to your attention verbally in a manner which you couldn't easily pretend to ignore.

Besides encountering the onion inspectors, I also witnessed a little ironic sibling rivalry at the register as I was checking out. A woman with a son, daughter, and a baby in a carriage bought one package of chicken legs and checked out. The daughter was about 9 years old and the son was, perhaps, 7. The daughter asked to carry the bag and her mother gave it to her and moved ahead with the baby carriage. The son then proceded to grab the bag and initiate a wrestling match with his sister over the right to carry it.

The reason this is so ironic is that, later in life, this boy is likely to grow up and saddle his wife with all the bags she can carry and be unwilling to shoulder any of the burden. I've seen many cases where a woman is laden down with shopping bags while her husband saunters ahead of her unfettered.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Breaking 100K

Before anyone thinks I'm getting rich, that's yen, not dollars. ;-) Every month around the 20th, I have to file a report about the number of hours I taught so I can get paid. This is the first month where I've made around 100,000 yen. This represents about 1/3 of a full income for most teachers in Japan so it's not like it's a huge amount of money. In fact, it doesn't even cover our rent but it's pretty good as a means of padding my husband's income.

I've actually been relatively lucky that this was such a good month because my higher income has been balanced out by greater than usual expenses. Both my husband and I needed clothes. We avoid buying new clothes for as long as possible but winter is (finally) coming on and it was clear my tatty sweater wasn't going to see me through any longer. My husband also got new glasses so, between those and the clothes, we spent about 50% of my "salary" already.

Foreigners in Japan who find themselves in need of clothes and who either prefer not to buy expensive Japanese clothes or find that the sizes or designs don't fit them well might want to consider buying from mail order via Land's End. Their prices are reasonable, especially compared to Japanese prices for decent quality business clothes, and they carry a wide variety of sizes and nearly any type of clothing you might need short of evening gowns and club wear. They also don't gouge on shipping and send items quite fast. The only thing you have to be careful about is buying shoes from them because, for some reason, shoes are subject to customs taxes. Other types of clothing are not. I'm guessing it may have something to do with goods made of leather but I'm not sure.

I never expected to be able to gather enough private students to make this much. Things just happened to go my way this month. I got a temporary student who took 3 extra lessons. My student who schedules "as needed" happened to come three times when she usually comes once a month.

The outlook for next month is far less rosy as at least 2 of my regular students have cancelled most of their lessons and I expect that more will cancel as we go into the holiday season. The last few weeks of December are a big time for students to go abroad, it seems. So, you can see why making 100,000 yen would be a blog-worthy event for me. ;-) It doubt it'll come around again.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Orange Yogurt Muffins

Fruit is a funny thing. Sometimes you can love the flavor but hate the fruit it came from or vice versa. For instance, I love strawberries but I dislike anything that is strawberry-flavored. When it comes to oranges, I dislike the fruit but love the flavor in nearly anything else.

I found this recipe for orange yogurt muffins on the Better Homes and Gardens web site. Unfortunately, like many recipes that come from the U.S., it calls for ingredients which I either can't get or are likely to be different in their composition in a Japanese version. In this case, the recipe called for orange yogurt which I've rarely seen in local markets.

I decided to improvise since this recipe held a lot of appeal for me. I also changed the preparation method so that it's simplified and faster to get together. This had the added benefit of allowing me to reduce the sugar and substitute Splenda for part of it. I omitted the glaze entirely.

Here's my modified recipe:

Dry ingredients:
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup granular Splenda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Wet ingredients:
  • 1 medium to large orange
  • 200 grams/7 oz. plain (unsweetened) yogurt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup Canola oil
  • dash of vanilla essence

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Centigrade). Sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda into a large bowl. Stir in the salt, Splenda, and sugar. Wash the orange and grate the outer skin to make zest. Be sure not to grate down to the pith. Peel half the orange and place the segments in a small bowl food processor (such as a Braun Multiquick processor). Process the orange at low speed until it resembles applesauce. Add the yogurt and process at low speed again. Add the egg, oil, grated orange zest and vanilla and process again until well-blended. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into it. Stir carefully until just mixed. It should be lumpy. Do not overmix or you will overwork the gluten in the flour and your muffins will be tough. Grease the bottom only of muffin cups or use a papers. Fill each cup 2/3 of the way to the top with batter and bake for about 15 minutes until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Note: If you want to use sugar and no Splenda, you can use 3/4 cup of sugar. I use 1/4 cup of added sweetener/sugar compared to the original recipe because I use plain yogurt and it adjusts for the unsweetened yogurt.

Computer Things

One of the problems with being in Japan is that you have several dilemmas to face when it comes to your computer equipment. The biggest one is about language and the software you can get as well as the OS your computer runs. If you're a Mac user, this isn't as big a problem since Macs come with all languages on the OS disc. If you use a PC, it can be a bit hairier. You have to either buy a computer from a place that specializes in foreign machines running an English OS such as User's Side 2, buy an English OS and install it yourself or you have to get something from home. While User's Side is a decent resource, their selection is relatively limited and the prices somewhat high.

My solution has always been to enlist the aid of family to get what I need. I've been very fortunate that my father-in-law is willing to help me get Macs and other items, often paying for the postage himself and, in the case of the camera I use to take pictures for this blog, paying for it entirely. It's something I'm very grateful to him for. On the PC side, my sister helps me out if I order something which requires tinkering before it gets sent on to me. She installs any extra memory, checks the machine for problems and then ships it to me. She also forwards PC software that I buy and I'm grateful to her as well.

The reason you have to get help from people back home is that most software and computer equipment can't be sent directly to Japan from the manufacturer. This is a huge annoyance and the rules appear to be designed to protect the domestic market with its inflated prices. The thing about this which is nonsensical is that it's unlikely that any Japanese person would buy cheaper English language versions of their software or hardware. They couldn't understand English well enough in 99% of cases to make it worthwhile.

Once you have your English language versions with a handy manual in English, the problem may or may not be solved. If it breaks, you're outside of the warranty zone unless you purchase a specialized warranty or have a Mac. I believe Apple services their computers worldwide. With PCs, it will likely come out of your own pocket or you'll have to send it back home.

In the case of Dell, I believe you can get it serviced in a country other than the one you bought it in but only if you jump through several frustrating and pointless paperwork hoops which will take at least a month to jump through, if not longer. In fact, the most frustrating thing with Dell is that they won't even service a computer at the user's expense unless you do this idiotic paperwork which changes the "service tag" of the machine so that it matches the country you are in. I guess traveling business people with a malfunctioning Dell laptop are screwed if they want a quick repair from a Dell service center abroad.

For peripheral items, like printers, being abroad can also be a problem. I got a U.S. model printer 6 or 7 years ago and am still able to use it with every machine I own. One problem, however, is that the printer cartridges aren't produced in Japan so I have to order them from a U.S. distributor. This actually isn't so bad because I get them fairly cheaply from Myinks. Like Deep Discount DVD, this is another place with a relatively cheesy-looking web site but which delivers on low prices, decent service, and reasonable shipping rates for international orders. They also offer occasional sales and campaigns that they e-mail you and are worth signing up to get "spam" from.

Of course, it's better not to pay for new cartridges at all if it can be avoided. I try to refill the cartridges as often as possible from the kit pictured above. There's an art to refilling if you want to have a decent chance of success. One important component is that you don't wait until the cartridge is completely empty to refill it. I have read that there are sponges inside the cartridges (and when you insert a refill needle, you can feel them) and they will dry out if you wait until the ink is very low to refill. Also, it's important to make sure you don't screw up the way in which the air holes operate so the pressure inside the cartridge is maintained. You need to follow the instructions for your cartridge type carefully and tape over the right holes.

Even if you do it all correctly, it's sometimes a bust and no cartridge can be refilled indefinitely. However, if you can refill it twice, it's well worth it since the kits cost less than $20 and have enough ink for dozens of refills. In Japan, you can get these kits at Costco on occasion or from Amazon Japan.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pizza Madness

image courtesy of the fine folks from Pizza Hut Japan

Pizza places in Japan seem to constantly be changing and adding crust options. Like Pizza Hut in America, they offer pan pizza, cheese crust, and an "Italian crispy" (thin) crust. They also offer a crust which has "wieners" wrapped inside the edges which sounds okay but is actually pretty vile because the sausages are nasty.

The most recent, pictured above, is a crust that consists of little rolls stuffed with three kinds of cheese (parmesan, cheddar and mozzarella). The idea is to pull off the little rolls and eat them alone before eating the pizza itself. This isn't such a strange idea but the portion inset picture is where it gets weird. Even if you can't read the Japanese, you can see one of the rolls with some sort of syrup on it and a red maple leaf under it. From that alone, you can take the hint but I'll tell you that it says "honey maple syrup" on the red leaf. Yes, that's right. You can squeeze honey maple syrup on your cheese crust pizza.

My husband and I ordered a pizza with this crust this evening and the little rolls taste pretty much like a cheese sandwich. I can't imagine why someone would want to put honey maple syrup on a cheese sandwich but Pizza Hut probably knows how to market things better than I do.

The pizza above, incidentally, is the "Crab and Shrimp Mayo King". It's toppings include crab, shrimp, mayonnaise (obviously), corn, onion, and broccoli. Pour on some honey maple syrup and you're set for a feast. :-p

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


While shopping at the local butcher shop, I had an interesting, though not uncommon experience. When I entered the shop, an older woman, probably around 60 or so, was already there being waited on by one of the always friendly and helpful young women who works there. She had about half a pound of bacon on the scale for her and the woman was asking her questions and telling her what she wanted.

Another of this shop's seemingly endless supply of energetic and positive-thinking young women came out to help me. I asked her for my ground chicken and she promptly weighed it out for me and bagged it up. The older lady was about three feet from the cash register and hadn't moved from the time I'd arrived at the shop (I saw her through the glass doors) until the point at which I approached the register. As I went to pay, she sidled over another foot as if she wanted to make sure she checked out before me even though she was nowhere near finished making her order. Her bacon was still on the scale, unwrapped.

The moment I paid, she latched on to the young woman that had just rung me up and made her get together another part of her order for her while the first one was still helping her. I guess that she must be catering a big dinner party or something to require two people to wait on her at once. ;-)

I've seen this sort of territorial body language many times since coming to Tokyo. Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, I rarely, if ever saw this sort of aggressiveness. People in small towns, who are more likely to see each other again or to know one another or know someone who knows the other person, are far more likely to wave someone in front of them or back off for someone who appears to be there first. In Tokyo, I see people inching in, cutting off, jumping in front of, and out and out butting in on others all the time. I can be checking out with 6 people behind me and someone will run up to the cashier and interrupt the transaction to ask a question or insist on being served.

I see this sort of thing in tiny ways in addition to these more overt ways. For instance, if you stand at a crosswalk which isn't very crowded with people, and you are the person standing closest to the street or curb, men who walk up and wait at the crosswalk with you will make sure they stand further ahead than you so that they can get out ahead as soon as the light changes. If you inch forward so that you are equal or ahead of them, they will move ahead again. I once asked a friend to test this and she also found that this was the case. I joked with her that you probably could get a man to stand in the middle of the crosswalk this way if you were willing to push it far enough.

Men and women also tend to be different in how territorial they are. Women are far more aggressive in shops and men on the streets and sidewalks. If you're on a bicycle, for instance, women who are blocking the sidewalk are far more likely to move aside if you ring your bike bell whereas men are more likely to not move or to wait for a more aggressive second ringing before moving. Also, middle-aged and older men and women are far more likely to do these sorts of things than younger ones.

All of this territorial behavior is likely unconscious and I'm nearly certain it isn't Japan-based. I tend to think that it's part of living in a densely-populated urban area where you're constantly required to compete for space and attention. After you battle it for awhile, you may develop a second nature where you jockey for the best position without even thinking. I think I notice it more than others because I had no experience with it before coming to Japan and I tend to be incapable of tuning out what is happening around me.

A Trip to the Dentist

It's been 10 years since I last made a trip to the dentist. I know that sounds very bad and like I have some sort of phobia about them but the truth is that I don't mind going to the dentist much. In fact, I'd much rather go to the dentist than go to a doctor. Dentists can see your teeth and gums and have a much clearer view of what problems are. They don't even have to ask you much about your problems to do their job.

Doctors, on the other hand, often have to deal with a set of ambiguous symptoms which they have to interpret or do extensive (and often invasive, inconclusive, and uncomfortable) testing to help guide them toward a correct diagnosis. My experiences with doctors are often frustrating, annoying and disheartening.

Luckily, I've never had a bad dental experience in Japan. In the U.S., I had some pretty awful experiences in my childhood but never in Japan as an adult. When I was a kid, two of my lower molars in the middle of each side of my mouth were pulled when I had a cavity because my family was too poor for proper dental care. In both cases, I didn't get enough novacaine or it was injected improperly and it was very painful. As an adult, I've had to live with the two gaping holes left by losing these teeth. They can't be seen but it's messed up my bite and makes for some chewing problems.

The reason that it's been 10 years since I last visited the dentist is that, frankly, it just didn't occur to me to go because I hadn't had any problems. After my long bout of cold and cold-related issues though, the teeth on one side of my mouth were really aching. This isn't uncommon for me after a long illness as I can sometimes have pain due to very minor dental problems when my immune system is suppressed. However, it occurred to me that I may have a cavity after all this time.

The first thing I discovered when arriving at the hospital the clinic occupied the third floor of was that it no longer was in the same building. Within the last year, they were shuffled off to a little building behind the hospital (pictured above). It looks pretty unimpressive on the outside but it's actually okay on the inside. The building is not new but it's very clean and they seem to have more space to deal with patients now than before. It sort of resembles a hair salon with about 5 or 6 dental chairs lined up and partitioned off from one another along two sides of the building. I think one dentist tends to service each side and there are separate doors leading to one or the other.

My husband and I both made appointments and they took us in about 5 minutes apart. I thought the dentist might give me hell for not coming for so long or complain about the state of my teeth but he looked in my mouth for about a minute and said everything looked fine. I did mention the problem with the left side and the pain and he told me this is because part of a wisdom tooth (which has largely migrated out and will eventually be fully-exposed) is still covered by gum and food or bacteria can get in there and the gum will be inflamed.

My husband hadn't been for only a year and he also had a once over and everything looked okay for him as well so we both had a cleaning. Well, to be more accurate, he had a cleaning and I had a half cleaning. I have Japanese health insurance and he does not and it seems that Japanese health insurance is the reason procedures get strung out in Japan. Apparently, they won't pay if you get it all done at once. I'm not sure what purpose this serves except to put out the person who is doing it or to allow for multiple billing but that's the way it is.

To our great irritation, we discovered that we only save about $20 by having health insurance pay for it and we have to waste at least another hour and $3 in train fare. If I had known that, I would have paid it all out of pocket and got it done at once rather than waste the time of going back again in two weeks to get the second half done.

On the bright side, we visited the basement of the Ogikubo JR station afterwards where there is a shop with a lot of yummy import items. Since my husband is celebrating his birthday this weekend (since he worked on the actual day), he indulged on some Dare maple cookies, an orange chocolate bar, and some barbeque Ruffles potato chips. There are also a plethora of pretty nice bakeries in the same area including Kobe-ya (which makes sublime custard tarts) and Anten-do (which makes my husband's favorite banana muffins) so we picked up a few items. All in all, not a bad day out but I could do without the crowds.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Student Roster

Sometimes I post knowing what I say is of interest to family and/or friends and sometimes I know it's mainly of interest to those who also live in Japan. So, I know not every post I write is going to interest everyone who reads. This one is mainly geared toward using this blog as a record of this particular time period in Japan. It'll allow me to look back on my situation a year from now and remember what it was like. For those who are curious (particularly my friends back home), it may give them a better idea of the types of people who seek out private teachers and give them an idea of who I'm spending time with (and when).

At the moment, I have 12 private students and teach in my apartment between 9-13 hours a week. Most students take one-hour lessons once a week on a regular basis with a few exceptions. Here's the roster:


(5:15 pm) 18-year-old university student who is studying French as her major. She works 8 hours a week at a coffee shop behind the counter and loves watching "24". Every week, I ask her what she saw on "24" from the DVDs that she rented. Her English level is low-intermediate mainly because she's relatively passive and gives short replies. She does seem to understand most of the questions I ask her. She's friendly but not effusive.

(6:30 pm) 40-something "office lady" type who works for a newspaper company that also arranges exhibitions around Japan. She's married to a man who works for Meiji chocolate company and her income is mainly used to fund travel abroad. Both she and her husband particularly enjoy nature and travel to sightsee or hike in national parks. She told me once that, due to a misunderstanding when filling out her customs declaration in New Zealand, she had to pay a 50,000 yen (about $500) fine because they're very strict about bringing in your own hiking boots. Apparently they are very concerned about bacteria being transported in and harming the ecosystem. This student was my very first private student after quitting my full-time job. She is a solid intermediate level. She understands what I ask her quite well and responds at length but often can't recall the necessary vocabulary quickly. She often pauses and taps her head while she tries to think of words. She's quite nice but very laid back.


(3:00 pm) 45-year-old housewife with 2 sons and a husband who has 2 jobs. This is the student that I wrote the "Magic English Pill" post about but she has since improved. She is hyperactive, effusive and very, very friendly. In fact, she asked me to hug her at the end of her last lesson because she'd read on the internet that it was "free hug" day on November 8. I documented her English skills pretty well in my original post but she has since come to accept repetition and some structure in the lesson. I'm much more positive about my future lessons with her now.

(6:00 pm) 64-year old man who has two grown sons and is married. He worked for Japan's major phone company all his life and retired several years ago. He now works freelance teaching computer and cell phone skills to elderly people at local community centers and proctors exams that allow people to obtain various qualifications. His level is low but in a very specific fashion. He can speak well about everyday matters but has very stubborn grammar problems and almost no ability to retain new information. He's nice enough but his lessons tend to be pretty tedious topic-wise. He spent an entire lesson talking about how he brushed his teeth. He chooses the topic he wants to talk about, not me. As is the case with many men in Japan, he's crazy about golf and has spent many lessons discussing the minutiae of his playing. He's my only male student.


(1:00 pm-temporary, only until the end of November) 45-year-old former housewife who is about to start working at an information kiosk at a major international hotel and is taking a few lessons to warm her up for the job. She's the most lovely, gentle person I could hope to meet. Her manner is friendly with none of the "fake" or needy overtones you sometimes get from students. She's lived abroad in English-speaking countries for several years and has excellent understanding but sometimes spotty grammar. I wish she were continuing as a permanent student but she probably won't really need lessons once she starts work.

(4:00 pm) 23-year-old flower shop employee who studied Islamic History in university. She's very shy but nice. Her English level is the lowest among my students and she can only briefly answer the most basic of questions. Her purpose for studying English is unclear because she seems to be happy at the flower shop (despite the fact that it doesn't utilize her education in any way) and doesn't want to advance her career. This student is semi-regular. She comes 2-4 times a month.

(7:00 pm) 41-year-old "housewife" who is now a college student studying Criminal Justice at a college on one of the U.S. military bases. She now takes 90-minute lessons or two hours depending on her need. She's not very housewife-like in her habits. She is a mixture of timidity coupled with fierce determination that has propelled her past her insecurities and fear. I'm so impressed by her that I often help her for free outside of the lesson time doing internet reasearch to help her with her assignments or correcting her homework on my own.


(2:00 pm) 44-year-old company employee who works in accounting. She has two children and is the mother of the girl who was featured in a cheerleading squad documentary I mentioned awhile ago in "Joyless Practice". She told me that she doesn't live with her husband but I'm not sure exactly why and don't want to ask the personal questions necessary to find out. She has lots of grammar problems and is working extremely hard on her own to improve her TOEIC score so she can move on to a different line of work. She does a great deal of homework, writes a diary in English, and has been reading "The Boxcar Children" series of children's books to help her improve her English. She's very friendly and a bundle of energy. With her situation, I don't know how she manages to do all the things she does.

(3:30 pm) 24-year-old insurance company worker who would like to learn English for travel abroad. I've only had one lesson with her so it's hard to really get a sense of her. She seems relatively calm and composed and that's pretty much all I could conclude.

(5:00 pm) 33-year-old company worker who works for a major electronics company. Her work is mainly centered around organizing exhibitions of her company's products worldwide. She's married to an accountant and comes from a large family and would like to have a lot of children one day herself. She needs English because her work requires her to travel abroad for her work. She's also studying Chinese. Among my students, she seems to spend the most time at her office and often is in poor health because she works so much overtime. I mentioned her situation in my post "Japanese Working Style". She's actually the next student I expect to lose because she's had to cancel a few lessons because of her health and I think her motivation is relatively low despite the need for English in her work.


(3:00 pm) 40-year-old company worker who works in the accounting section of an architectural firm. She currently hates her job and told me she was going to quit last week. She's studying English mainly for career advancement. She is unusual in that she has a career counselor to help guide her to improve her situation. It's even more unusual that he's Turkish (though he speaks fluent Japanese). She can express herself very well and tends to spend about half of each lesson complaining about her job but has vocabulary limits and grammar problems. She's the only student I've got who bought her own textbook so she can pre-prepare before the lesson.

Random days and times:
31-year-old freelance translator who makes subtitles for mostly English (sometimes other languages) movies for the Japanese audience. This student comes about once a month and we just go over transcripts of movies and watch movie clips. I answer any questions she has about vocabulary or meaning. She's nice but it's hard to develop a really good rapport with her since we rarely spend much time discussing personal topics and I see her infrequently.

I don't have any lessons on Monday and Tuesday because those are my husband's days off so they are my days off as well. In another year, if I'm still doing this, it'll be interesting to compare schedules.

Monday, November 13, 2006

An Extremely Deep Discount

Deep Discount DVD is holding a 20% off sale which I believe ends on November 18. In order to take advantage of the sale, you have to enter a promotional code on check-out. If you shop carefully, this can really add up to a huge price cut over Amazon or other DVD outlets.

I'd been on the fence about buying MASH for quite some time because I felt the seasons were a bit too expensive on a per season basis. I also tend to prefer to buy complete sets rather than individual seasons of shows which I would like to have every season of. The added bonuses to being patient and waiting in this regard is that I get all the added extras they toss in to persuade people who already bought a show season by season buy the box set and I get each season more cheaply.

When I initially searched Amazon, I was delighted to see they listed it for about $140. A day later, it had jumped up to about $170 on Amazon and I was disappointed as that was over the threshold that I wanted to pay. Fortunately, in response to a sale message from Deep Discount DVD, my husband looked into the set's price on DDD and they had it for $140. Coupled with the sale discount, the price dropped down to $111 which is as good a deal as one can hope for.

I also found some other movies for a little over $4 after the discount. These weren't stellar movies but some science fiction that I like enough to watch now and then (like the original Stargate movie in its "ultimate edition" form). If you're a movie collector, it's a good time to go through the DDD catalog and fill in gaps very cheaply. I tend to choose a genre from the side bar then list movies by price from lowest to highest and scan up to a certain price range.

If you're interested in taking advantage of the sale and don't get DDD's "spams" (which as I said before, are actually worth getting), let me know and I'll pass on the discount code to you.

Fond Gustatory Memories

One of my husband's students is a generous gift-giver. She's given him a fair number of food items, mostly based on foods he says he favors. Today, she gave him 6 small cupcakes and a carton of frosting. The funny thing is that these cupcakes are just the kind we had as kids or the type you buy at bake sales in the states. It's an experience neither my husband nor I have had for more than 20 years now but it is a crystal clear taste memory.

It turns out that the student bought these at a church bake sale in Nerima-ku. They were made by foreign women who were a part of the church. That would explain why they taste like the so much like what we could get back home. The cupcakes were almost certainly made with cake mixes imported from the U.S. It's the sort of thing that you appreciate more even though it's not all that important because it's such a rare touch of home and it brings bake an enjoyable experience from childhood.

When it comes to memory, smell is the strongest memory cue followed by taste. That is, if you smell something familiar, you are likely to remember something associated with when and where you have smelled it in your past. The same goes for taste. It could be because both of these are chemical-based senses. It could be because having strong memory cues with smell and taste increased the chances of survival of our ancestors.

During my time in Japan, I've noticed that both smell and taste have been the most frequent senses to "carry me back" to moments from my childhood in the U.S. Most of the time, it's a good experience but sometimes it makes me a bit melancholy and homesick. I'm not sure if that's because I miss any particular food so much as perhaps I miss being a child and having far fewer problems and finding that far simpler things, like a cupcake, made me happy.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Just Wonderful

Sometimes I think the weird English on Japanese items is intentionally strange. While I'm sure it's just nonsensical at times because the meaning is unimportant and it's just meant to be decorative wording, I have to think the person who decided to brand this toilet paper as "Wonderful" must have gotten the joke.

Don't get me wrong. I don't intend to start making a bunch of postings and go out of my way to take pictures of these sorts of things. In general, I'm far less amused by these things than most foreigners. My husband enjoys these types of things as does his brother but I've grown a little immune to the humor for some reason.

It wasn't even that I found this one so funny but rather that this brand replaced my normal brand of generic el cheapo toilet tissue ("Bell W", cleverly emblazoned with a picture of a bell over a big letter "W") at the local drug store. I must say that this one seems far more enthusiastic about the quality of its product than the former brand.

The little saying on the inset is pictured at the bottom of this post. This seems to be indicating that I'm going to have a far better experience with this tissue than with other brands. It's actually a little creepy to write about having a "satisfied feeling" on a package of toilet paper.

I haven't tried this tissue yet but somehow I doubt it's going to prove more satisfying than my old brand of 200 yen per 12 roll package of toilet paper. There's only so much satisfaction you can get for a little under $2.00.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I Doubt Apple Will Sue

This picture respectfully taken from the Tulip Ego site. I hope they appreciate the free advertising.

I was reading this evening when I saw a picture of the notebook pictured above. As an owner of a 266 mhz G3 tangerine iBook (pictured below with a blue one), the first thing I thought was that somehow Apple had revised this design and issued a new computer. Of course, they recently released MacBooks and I know they do not resemble the old models. It's not like Apple to recycle old designs so flagrantly anyway. It's even less likely for them to recycle a design which was often likened to a toilet seat in design and which was criticized for adding too much bulk and weight to the computer because of the added material.

The fact that the iBook design wasn't universally lauded makes it all the more curious that an expensive vanity computer like the Tulip Ego would ape it's design. The Tulip Ego was designed by Laurent de Beer but I can't imagine he lives in a sufficient vacuum to have missed Apple's iBooks. The computer comes in different possible external designs (using "shells") and can include 470 diamonds and cost over $300,000. It's essentially a vanity computer which could make it a kissing cousin of a Mac depending on your opinions of Mac users. ;-)

While Apple has been known to sue companies for attempting weak rip-offs of their popular models as they have done in the past with the original gumdrop, color iMacs and the Mac Mini, I don't think they're likely to sue over someone using a design similar to such an old model.

The funny thing about this computer's information page is that I was unable to find information anywhere that tells me what OS it runs. While I'm pretty sure it runs Windows, I find it particularly amusing that the company found this information sufficiently inconsequential as not to mention it on any of its main pages.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Today is my husband's 44th birthday. I tell him every year that it's the most important day ever. And, I mean it. I adore my husband. In fact, I adore him more every year we're together.

Like many men, my husband doesn't really look his age. His hair isn't going grey much except for an odd hair here and there. The same goes for his beard. When he was younger, he looked older than his age (likely because of the beard) and now he looks younger than his age. By the time he's 60, people will probably think I'm his mother. :-p

Unfortunately, he has to work so we can't do any sort of proper celebrating. I made him a pumpkin pie (his favorite pie) last night but he's saving the serious celebration for next Monday when he has a day off. I'm not sure what we'll do but he does have a nice, thick steak in the freezer that he's been saving for this occasion.

As is the case for many people as they get older, we don't really do much in the way of gift-giving anymore. It's not because we don't care but rather that we can't really think of anything we want. I'm not sure if this is because we're not particularly materialistic (we're not) or because we've already acquired most of the things we want through time.

The picture above is pinched from Apple's eCards on .Mac. I generally dislike eCards but I think Apple has pretty nice ones. They're tasteful and simple. You also don't run the risk of your e-mail address being sold off to a spammer when you use Apple's cards. When you send one of those cards, Apple puts a nifty Apple postmark on it as well. I would never do something as impersonal as send one of them to my husband, mind you. I do send one to my mother but that's because she actively likes them.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

You Can't Call Me "Mrs."

When it comes to learning a foreign language, the impediments to becoming fluent aren't only linguistic. They are sometimes cultural. You find that these problems are relatively hard to dislodge, particularly among lower level students. Even when the correction is simple and there is a hard and fast rule they can memorize and follow, they get stuck in conceptualizing a situation in a particular way and forget the rules.

One of the persistent problems I've experienced with this is over whether or not students can or should call me "Mrs. MyLastName". The problem for them is that I'm married but I didn't take my husband's family name. They seem to understand the notion that a married woman may be addressed as "Mrs." and a single one as "Ms." or "Miss." They can't seem to process the idea that I'm married but it's improper to address me as "Mrs."

There are a few reasons for this. One is that the Japanese don't change titles based on gender or marital status. They change them based on status, relationship to the other person, or age. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is that a married person in Japan can't have a different name than his or her spouse. There's a family registry system which requires that a married person choose a family to register with. A wife can register as part of her husband's family and take his name or vice versa for a husband (though the latter is relatively rare, it isn't legally prohibited).

I'm not really all that bothered by being improperly addressed but I do find it peculiar to be addressed in the same manner as my mother would. The main reason to continue to teach the correct way to students is to facilitate some level of cross-cultural understanding on this point.

Of course, I prefer that my students just call me "Shari" and that fixes the entire problem.

Making Spiced Chickpeas (Chana Masala)

Through her comments on my blog, I found Mallika's Quick Indian Cooking site and tried out the spiced chickpeas recipe this evening. I was a little worried about my ability to pull off the recipe considering most of my attempts at Indian cooking have turned out okay, but not nearly as good as what I've had at restaurants.

I was determined to follow the recipe to the letter (well, except I used Canola oil instead of sunflower) but was somewhat thwarted by the fact that I belatedly discovered that I had neither garlic nor ginger in the apartment. With the onions already cooking, I rushed off to QQ and hoped they'd have both. I was perfectly aware that this was a monumentally stupid thing to do. Visions of an earthquake bringing the kitchen walls down on my open flame and burning down the whole joint flashed through my mind as I hustled out and back. After all, one of my students spent half a lesson telling me that one of the reasons the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was so devastating was that it happened at lunchtime and many people were using open fires to cook lunch. I was tempting fate, albeit to an infinitesimal degree.

Fortunately, QQ had both ingredients. Unfortunately, I didn't know what fresh ginger looked like and was frowning in moderate confusion at the packages trying to make sure the gnarled stubs I saw were actually fresh ginger.

The dish turned out wonderfully. It just goes to show if you have a good teacher and you do what you're told, you can't fail. I'm looking forward to trying other recipes in the near future.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Low Carb Bread

this one is for Roy

A few years ago when the low carb fad was raging, my husband and I gave it a try. He still favors it but I gave up long ago. I just couldn't tolerate eating so much meat. The lesson I took away from it though was to minimize the consumption of certain types of carbohydrates and an overall increase in my knowledge of how blood sugar and insulin affect your body. I also learnd a bit about fatigue and how eating protein for breakfast can make you feel a lot better at work than having the usual toast and tea. Of course, I still have toast and tea but I know why I get tired 3 hours later.

Since my husband still favors going as low carb as possible, I developed a few recipes that I still use on a regular basis. One of them is low carb bread. This particular bread toasts very well and is quite soft and light. This is relatively unusual for low carb bread. There are variations on it that will increase or decrease the relative carbohydrate count but it is, all in all, a very healthy bread. The loaf has a rather nutty flavor because it contains a fair bit of flaxseed.

It is not, however, a normal bread. The texture isn't what you'd expect. The crust is relatively chewy and a bit tough. The interior is also "spongier" than regular bread but any increase in nutrition often comes with a "price". Additionally, you cannot use it for certain types of dishes because it tends to disintegrate more than regular bread when wet. Making French toast with it would be rather disappointing, for instance. That being said, it beats the hell out of any of the low carb bread mixes on the market and we've tried a lot of them. Those breads tend to be dense, heavy, and almost wet inside. They also will not toast at all.

Recipe for bread machine:

1/2 cup tepid water
1 egg
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2-1 Tbsp. honey
dash or two of salt
3/4 C. vital wheat gluten
1/3 cup soy or oat flour
1/3 cup ground flaxseed (finely or coarsely-ground depending on your tastes)
1 Tbsp. wheat bran (optional)
1 Tsp. yeast

Add the ingredients to the bread machine in the order given. If your bread machine has a yeast distribution pocket, place the yeast in the pocket. If it does not, make a well in the top of the dry ingredients and place the yeast in it. Set the crust color to "light" and bake on the "basic" setting (3 hours).

Those who live in Japan can get the specialized ingredients from Tengu Natural Foods or the Foreign Buyer's Club (FBC). I get the vital wheat gluten and flax from the FBC. I make my own oat flour by processing oatmeal in a food processor until it is finely ground. You can get soy flour at any Japanese grocery store. My husband doesn't care for soy flour which is why I substituted oats. However, soy will make for a lower carb bread and more protein.

click on the picture to get a close look at the texture

The bread is so soft that it is hard to cut unless frozen. In fact, you can cut it very easily while frozen so I usually toss the loaf in the freezer overnight and cut off pieces from the frozen loaf as I need them for sandwich-making.

As an aside, I made my husband's lunch this morning with the bread pictured in this post. He bought this bologna that looks radioactively-pink. The color you see is not some sort of strange color shift from the camera. It's real. It is called "bologna salami" but tastes like regular bologna. I'm sure there's some weird chemical dye in it to make it that color but he wanted something different for lunch so we gave it a go. I know these look a little overstuffed with meat but they're actually quite small sandwiches. He is not a big eater and has only a half of a sandwich each day.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dealing with Medical Needs in Japan

My husband had been wanting to get new glasses for the past several weeks but he wanted me to be along to help him choose frames. Since I've been sick for awhile, we've been putting it off. Today, we finally made it down to one of the local eyeglasses shops so he could get his eyes looked over and buy new glasses. His current pair of glasses is about 14 years old and he could see adequately with them but they were literally falling apart.

Both he and I resist buying new glasses in Japan much more so than we would in the U.S. The primary reason for this is that they are much more expensive here than in the States. They have actually gone down a lot in price compared to over a decade ago but you can still plan on paying 50-100% more in Japan compared to the U.S. My husband bought relatively moderately-priced frames and the cheapest plastic lenses and his cost about $170.

Any time you have some sort of medical issue in Japan, you have a decent chance of running up against the language barrier. Even people who can get by okay conversationally may find that dealing with medical needs is a bit hairy. My husband and I have been exceptionally lucky in this regard since coming to Japan. It seems like we tend to stumble or find a way to access English-speaking professionals every time we need one.

Today's experience with the optician was no exception. The shop had two employees, a man and a woman. The young woman spoke English quite well and handled my husband's exam while the man served me mugi-cha (barley tea) and rushed out to talk to any other customers. It really struck me that this was one of those famous cases of service being better in Japan than in the U.S. These cases are actually far rarer than popular opinion would lead one to believe, particularly when you have a lot of experience with the same type of restaurants average Japanese people frequent and run of the mill stores rather than in the places that specifically cater to foreigners.

My husband and I are both due for a trip to the dentist and made an appointment for a week from today. That is another situation where we've been very fortunate. The dentist we go to is in a clinic in Tokyo Adventist Hospital and he also speaks English as does at least one receptionist who we can make appointments through. Many of my coworkers and friends who have gone to Japanese dentists talk about how they will string out procedures and require the patient to return again and again rather than complete them in a reasonable time. I'm uncertain as to why they do this. The cynical viewpoint would be they try to get you in for as many office visits as possible so they can milk your insurance. The explanation that may be in line with the Japanese character would be that they have been taught that this is a better way to handle dental problems for some reason and no one has ever told them otherwise.

I'm pleased to say that that this sort of stringing along of the patient is not the case at the clinic we go to. Our experiences have always been quite good, or at least as good as a dental appointment can be.

There are dentists in Japan who cater to foreigners specifically but they tend to be extremely pricey and refuse to take the Japanese national health insurance. The same goes for doctors. Fortunately, the Tokyo Adventist Hospital also has English speaking doctors and they take Japanese health insurance. If you're not too far from Ogikubo and dissatisified with your current doctor or dentist, I recommend you consider giving the Tokyo Adventist Hosptial a try.