Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Technology as a Touchstone

Back when I was working at Nova conversation school, I made friends with a British woman whose grandmother was in her early 90's and was in failing health. I expressed my sympathy and she said that her grandmother was "ready" to die because she'd seen so much of the world change in her life. She mentioned that things like travel by plane, which were common by the time of her death, were not the case when she was a child. Her main point was that she'd seen a lot and was okay with the idea that she was going to die.

At the time that my friend told me that, I was 24 and couldn't relate entirely to what she was saying. Now, I'm quite a bit older and am beginning to see and feel a bit of what her grandmother must have felt. In my post about how things have changed since I arrived in Japan, I cover some of these things but I recently had a lesson with a student that reinforced this feeling.

My student works in the accounting section of a building materials company and she was trying to explain a commonly-used method of payment in Japan which is the equivalent of a regulated, dated "I.O.U.". She said that it's common for companies to make agreements which state that, at some point in the future, they will pay the balance of their debt in full. If they fail to pay at that point, there can be serious legal consequences which can result in bankrupcy.

Anyway, when I was trying to understand what she was talking about, I mentioned several payment methods that are possible in the United States. One of the methods I mentioned was a money order. She had no idea what a money order was and couldn't conceptualize under what circumstances one might use one. She's not the first person to not know what this method of payment was. A young friend of mine (approaching his mid 20's) in the U.S. also had never heard of one when I mentioned he could use one to pay for something.

Money orders were a common means of guaranteed payment when I was growing up and now they are going to become as antiquated as green stamps. I'm guessing payment by personal check is not far behind money orders in this regard.

Somehow, the fact that young people don't know what a money order is feels different than old technology which they may not be familiar with. I guess that part of the reason for that is that format changes or technological improvements are faster and more common but things like methods of payment tend to linger for a much longer time. I guess my friend's grandmother probably felt much the same about modes of transportation.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dubious Accounting

I haven't been posting as much lately because I'm starting to feel a bit burnt out. I'm not burnt out on posting, mind you, but a little burnt out on dealing with heaping piles of tasks that need to be done. Posting when I'm in this state is rather difficult because I don't have much energy to accomplish more than what I'm already doing.

Last week, I did a fair bit of freelance work on top of my private teaching load (which is up to full capacity again after the holiday lull) and my husband has been sick all week. He's been a trooper and worked anyway but it's really left him worn out and prolonged his cold. For those who don't teach, teaching is one of the hardest jobs to do when you have a cold because it strains your throat constantly and requires you to project yourself at least somewhat energetically all the time. It also makes all the disgusting little maintenance things (blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, etc.) you have to do to alleviate your discomfort much more difficult to do because you've got an audience. What's worse, you've got an audience which is part of a culture that doesn't condone nose-blowing as a socially acceptable behavior.

Since my husband has been working 9-hour days while sick, he's not been able to help out much and requires more care than usual. Some people might wonder why he doesn't just call in sick. There are a couple of reasons for that but one of them is that he doesn't get paid if he doesn't work. For teachers in Japan, I don't believe there is any such thing as a "sick day" though I guess you can take one of your 10 legally-mandated vacation days off as a sick day if you haven't already taken them as vacation days.

In my husband's case, he has no vacation days left but also his paid time off is calculated in a dubious fashion so he gets paid less for taking a day off than he would if he worked that day. This is something that my company started doing the last year of my employment but I think is really sneaky and unethical. My husband's salary is variable based on the number of hours he puts in each month. He does not work for a set salary. If he takes a day off, his school divides the previous month's salary by the number of days in the month and pays him 1/30 or 1/31 of the previous month's salary.

Of course, no one works 30 or 31 days a month so this is a lower wage than one actually makes on a daily basis. The fair thing to do is divide the previous month's salary by the number of working days in the month (generally 21-23). This accounting technique allows his company to pay him about $50 less per day taken off.

When my former company instituted this practice after years of calculating it fairly, they just said that's the way they do it as if that was an explanation for an accounting technique which is clearly designed to screw the employee over. I don't think this is a Japanese practice though. In fact, I'm nearly certain other companies in the U.S. do it as well. Companies do this petty little accounting trick to cheat employees out of their fair wages and then wonder why they, in turn, do petty little things like steal office supplies, milk breaks for a few extra minutes or slack on the job when the boss isn't around. You reap what you sow.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Oat Pancakes

Though my husband has gone back to low-carb after some holiday indulgence, he does have small quantities of foods which are high in carbohydrates (but with good carbs) before he goes swimming in the morning. Doing this allows him to exercise better because it puts some glycogen in his muscles. People who do extreme low carb often find exercising more difficult because there's no sugar in their muscles for ready use.

These pancakes are a long-time favorite of his. They're relatively thin but have a good texture and taste because of the oatmeal. My husband usually has 2-3 with DaVinci sugar-free caramel syrup (which we get from the FBC) and plenty of butter.

The recipe makes 9 small pancakes.

Oat Pancakes recipe:
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal (rolled oats)
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 2 packets of Splenda (or 2 tsp. brown sugar)
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • dash of salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbls. canola oil
  • dash of vanilla essence
In a large bowl, soak the oats, salt and milk for 10 minutes to soften the oats. Add the egg, oil, vanilla and Splenda and mix very well with a fork, spoon or whisk (though do not whisk vigorously enough to add a lot of air). Stir in the flour until thoroughly mixed and allow the batter to sit for a few minutes to settle.

Heat a large skillet or griddle and either lightly-grease it with butter or spray it with non-stick cooking spray. Cook over medium high heat until bubbles start to appear on the top and the edges start to look dry. Flip and cook until done. These are thin pancakes and don't take too terribly long to cook.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ghosties and Such

logo pinched from the Discovery Channel's site

Earlier today I was watching a Discovery Channel series called "A Haunting" which recounted the story of a little boy who was being "influenced" by a demonic entity and how his mother eventually rid herself of it. Generally, I don't go in for these types of shows but there was nothing better on and I wanted to watch something while I did some back exercises.

I'm not going to debate whether or not such things are "real" but I will say that I believe we make our own reality and that any manifestations of good or evil in our lives are our own mental constructions made manifest. I'm sure others feel otherwise and that's fine by me. It's not like anyone can prove that they are right or wrong about such things.

The thing that struck me while watching this "docu-drama" (or whatever you want to call it) is that the producers really did a good job of ramping up the potential spookiness factor by adding in cinematic touches which weren't a part of the story. The mother said, while she was attempting to perform a ritual to bar the spirit from influencing her son, that she wasn't sure if the house was going to shake or the windows break . These things never occurred but the camera was shaking to make it seem as though it had. There were also all sorts of spooky sound effects and "demon eye view"shots with a filter on the camera which was rushing in on the woman or her son as if the demon was "watching" or "attacking". This also never happened.

It occurred to me after watching all the work that went into juicing up the story that the audience must be pretty jaded to need cheap horror flick effects tossed into a supposedly true account of a demonic encounter. I also felt that doing these things undermined the emotional impact of the real mother's story as she narrated portions of the story. I guess we've all seen way too many horror movies to be impressed by the mere retelling of a ghost story.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Not Taking "No" For an Answer

Everyone knows about "the Japan that can't say no" idea. Today, I had an experience I've had rather frequently before in Japan where I encounter a Japanese person who won't take "no" for an answer. The general structure of the conversation is this:

JP = Japanese Person who wants you to do something you can't or don't want to do.

JP: Your student needs to cancel her lesson today and would like to come tomorrow.

Me: I'm afraid I'm busy tomorrow so I can't schedule a lesson for her then.

JP: She wants to come after 6:00 pm.

Me: I'm sorry but I'm especially busy after 6:00 pm.

JP: You're busy?

Me: Yes. Can she come next week?

JP: She would like to come tomorrow.

Me: I'm very busy tomorrow.

JP: You're too busy?

Me: Yes. I have other lessons.

(uncomfortable prolonged silence)

Me: (giving in first) Can she come next Thursday for her usual lesson?

JP: She would like to come on Friday.

Me: I'm sorry but I can't see her then.

(second uncomfortable silence)

Me: Please tell her I'm sorry I can't see her tomorrow.

JP: Okay, I'll tell her then.

As you can see, I'm pretty weak under the pressure of silence. I think this is a combination two things. First is the fact that I'm a teacher and any time I talk to a Japanese person, I feel it's my obligation to keep the conversation going. Second is because I was raised by a mother who made me feel like I was the most selfish person in the world if I didn't do everything I could to make everyone else happy even if I have to do so at my expense.

I don't have trouble asserting myself or making my opinions known but I do have problems saying "no" when I'm doing so for my own benefit. In this case, I was refusing a student who I don't really enjoy teaching because I already have 4 hours of lessons set up and that's going to be tiring enough without shoehorning her into the day. The main reason to turn her down is that it'll wear me out too much.

This problem is sufficiently an issue with me that I consider it a triumph every time I say "no" to someone because I don't feel like doing what they want for one reason or another. I'm sure this is a neurotic tendency but it's rather hard to overcome the conditioning I grew up with.

Despite a reputation for being polite and accommodating, the Japanese are just as capable of exerting pressure as anyone else. They just tend to do it in a more subtle fashion through repetition and silence rather than through volume or aggressiveness.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Of Blogger and Browsers

I usually post from Firefox on my PC but I was working on the Mac today and decided I'd post from the Mac. Unfortunately, I was in for an annoying surprise when I attempted to use Safari to post.

The screenshot above (click on it to see a bigger, easier to read version) is what the screen looks like when I use Safari. If you look at the toolbar across the top (just under the "Title" box), you can see there are only two icons. From Safari, the only thing you can do is spellcheck or add a picture.

The screenshot above is from Firefox on the PC and, as you can see, there's an entire row of options when posting including font type, size, style and color, linking, paragraph alignment, list formatting, spellchecking, picture addition, and format erasing.

I'm not sure if the absence of these options on Safari is because of Apple's coding of Safari or if it's related to Blogger not supporting the Mac's default browser. Either way, it's yet another reason to use Firefox.


My husband and I have had a rather unusual arrangement throughout most of our marriage regarding our work since coming to Japan. When we first arrived, we both worked full-time for 2 years then I quit to have gall bladder surgery (and because I hated my job). I recovered from surgery for about a year and a half and was a housewife who taught about 3-5 private lessons a week at home during that time.

I then worked at a temporary job which turned permanent while my husband continued to work at his language school. Several years into my work at an office that sold correspondence lessons in English, my husband started having some troubling health issues including asthma, constant fatigue and the inability to get completely well after a series of minor illnesses. At that point, my job seemed stable and I encouraged him to quit and I'd support us. He was a "househusband" for about a year and then started to work as a temporary employee at the office at which I was employed. He worked between 3 1/2 and 8 months of each year over nearly the next decade.

The time when I was relatively healthy and we were able to work together in the same office on the same schedule was pretty much the best time we have had. We would have continued this schedule if it weren't for my former company's decline in business reducing the number of months we could work together. Eventually, it looked as though they might not even need my husband full-time for 3 1/2 months each year and that was pretty much the point at which it became clear that he would have to find work elsewhere and our "golden age" of togetherness was going to end. Also, my health was in shambles and he'd been encouraging me to quit my job for years and he knew the only way I'd do it would be if he was in a stable relatively permanent, full-time situation.

One point that was really brought home to both of us during the times when one of us was handling housework full-time (for the most part) is that there is a definite increase in overall quality of life when someone takes care of the domestic work and you're not cramming it all in at the beginning and end of a workday. You eat better and more cheaply because someone has time to shop and cook nutritious meals. You live in a cleaner and more healthy environment. Both parties are less tense because there's less rushing about trying to get things done and the person who works gets more genuine resting time while home.

Our work situation has mainly been shaped by our desire to have as much time together as possible and, to a lesser extent, health problems for one or the other of us. I quit my full-time work a year ago because of my health but I think I may have hung in there longer if the schedule he got at his new job hadn't pushed us to have only one day off in common together and to work schedules which forced us to spend 4 hours of any day in which we were both working apart due to schedule discrepancies.

I'm sure we could have saved more money or we may have left Japan by now if we had both worked full-time all the time but I wouldn't trade the togetherness we have had for any amount of money or comfort back home. You can't have that time back once its gone and the opportunities we have had to work together are rare in any country. The way in which my husband and I can structure our lives to be together so much is one of the biggest reasons we've been here so long and one of the reasons we are somewhat reluctant to leave.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A "Why" Person

All my life, I've been a person who wants to know "why" things are the case. This is particularly so when it comes to human behavior and probably is part of what lead me to study psychology in university.

In my young adult days, this level of curiosity allowed me to be a relatively good social animal. People in their 20's are more than happy to mull over the details of their lives and allow you to explore their background and the motives of everyone around them.

In my first job after college (at a halfway house for mentally ill people), one of my coworkers once said that I was remarkably curious. I'm not sure if this was a polite way of saying I was too damn nosy or if this was an observation he made because I wanted to understand the dynamic behind the way people interacted and the ways in which their characters developed.

This particular coworker was the first person to recognize that all my curiosity lead to uncommon (and sometimes uncanny) insight into people's lives. I've been able to tell when coworkers were lying about college degrees and if friends grew up with alcoholic parents when they didn't say a word about either of these situations. I can read the past through attitudes and actions rather quickly (generally in the first meeting) though I rarely actually say what I think to people because it would be rude or too personal.

The funny thing is that this former coworker was the only person to ever overestimate how I "knew things" about people in what appeared to be an act of semi-clairvoyance (no, I don't believe it was clairvoyance...I believe it's the equivalent of figuring out the picture of a puzzle from seeing just a few pieces). This was the result of a very unlikely secret that my coworker had in common with a former classmate of mine from university. When I told my coworker that my former classmate had a secret son with an older woman he'd slept with once when he was quite young, he believed I'd related that story as an oblique way of letting him know I'd worked out his secret (which was the same one). Of course, this was back in the days when such things were kept a secret because they carried an element of shame. I can read a lot about people but I didn't work that out.

As I've gotten older though, and the people close to me have reached their 40's, I've found that my tendency to want to explore and theorize why things are happening has begun to be a source of frustration to those around me. When my husband is sick, I ponder the roots of his illness aloud and he doesn't want to hear it because it's of no help to him in getting well (and he feels it may hinder him because it makes him dwell on it more). When my sister tells me about my parents' increasingly regressive behavior, she doesn't want to discuss why they are doing what they do because it doesn't help her cope with how hard it is to live with them.

I've been trying to curb this tendency but I note to myself with irony that I wonder why people some aren't as curious about these things as I am. I guess I have some ways to go.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What I Hear

One of the big problems Japanese students have when learning English is distinguishing vocabulary with similar meanings from one another. The difference between "watch" and "look" is often a tricky one as is the difference between "listen to" and "hear".

As part of a lesson constructed to practice "listen to" and "hear" and distinguish when to use one or the other, I had a student tell me everything he hears around his home. It got me thinking about what I hear around my apartment and how we often focus on what we see more than on our other senses.

My time in Tokyo from an aural viewpoint is vastly different from my life in Pennsylvania. This is, in large part, because I never lived in a metropolis but it's also related to the extremely close proximity to people and possibly living in a place with cheaper (and less soundproof) building materials.

Here are the things I regularly hear:
  • A neighbor practicing the flute and playing poorly.
  • My elderly neighbors having loud conversations in front of their home for extended periods of time. They are so loud that it's like they're in the same room with us when our windows are open.
  • The sliding doors opening and closing in the apartment above us.
  • Various announcements from trucks selling things like rods that are used to hang laundry out on the balcony and roasted sweet potatoes or letting you know that they will collect your old electronics items like computers, T.V.s, or stereo components. Occasionally, during election times, I hear political prattle from trucks or vans driving up and down the streets.
  • People vacuuming their walls on the other side of our walls.
  • The neighbor above us tossing dirty cleaning water onto or over their balcony and hearing it splash around or on ours (sometimes when our clean laundry is hanging out on our balcony).
  • In summer, very loud cicadas in the little garden between our landlord's house and our apartment.
  • People hanging laundry on their balconies (it makes a distinct sound as the hangers hit the hollow tubes they are hung on).
  • Sparrows loudly and sharply chirping at each other and crows cawing.
  • An extremely inane tune played once or twice a week by a truck that drives around selling fuel.
  • Neighbors opening and closing the metal shutters that you can close across your windows for added security in the world's safest metropolis.
  • The door of our immediate neighbor opening and closing at least a half dozen times a day at all hours of the day and night as well as his key inserted and turning the lock. His front door is so close to ours that, when our kitchen window is open, it sounds like our door is being unlocked, opened and closed. Sometimes, this freaks me out when I'm home alone because it sounds like someone is coming in.
  • When it's quiet and the windows are open, I hear traffic stopping and starting as the lights change on a major street about a minute's walk from our apartment. I also hear various sirens from time to time.
  • The neighbor on one side flushing her toilet or running her bath. It appears to be located behind our closet.
  • People on motorcycles and scooters driving up and down the street. Many of them frequently stop and start as they pause in front of mailboxes and cram in advertising.
  • A daily tune which is played every day at 5:00 pm to inform children that they should go home now. This music always makes me melancholy because it's a little sad and because it reminds me of my husband and I being apart at that time of day.
  • People beating futons as part of airing them out (I hear this quite frequently).
  • Neighbors pulling mail from their door slots and people pushing fliers and junk through our mail slot.
  • Passerby and neighbors sneezing, gobbing up, and coughing (frequently on the latter two accounts).
  • The garbage and recycling trucks coming by on the appointed days.
  • Our doorbell ringing.
The things I used to hear back home and I no longer hear in Tokyo, in contrast are:
  • In winter, icicles falling from the edge of the roof and snow crunching as someone walks around outside. Also, ice noisily dripping as the stalagmites of ice begin to thaw.
  • Cars pulling into our driveway and their engines starting up or being turned off. Now, traffic and cars are pretty much an en masse experience whereas they were very individual aural experiences before.
  • In summer, crickets chirping.
  • Mountain lions crying.
  • In winter, cars spinning their wheels as they try to drive up icy hills.
  • The central heating turning itself on and off.
  • The clothes dryer running.
  • Cats and dogs doing their various daily activities.
  • My mother clearing her throat with a little coughing noise.
  • My father lighting his cigars with a Zippo lighter.
  • People knocking on our front door.
  • The banging of a screen door.
  • Feet going up and down stairs that sometimes creak.
  • The dull drone of television in English during most waking hours.
  • A mail truck delivering our mail.
  • Racks in our oven being rearranged.
  • My parents yelling for my sister and I to do something they don't want to do. ;-)
  • In summer, the lawnmower cutting grass.
What I discovered in thinking over this change in aural sensation is that you lose a lot of environmental aspects that you don't tend to immediately recognize unless you focus on them. "Home" goes beyond what you can see and do and extends into what you hear, smell, feel, and breath. I think these are aspects that contribute to homesickness that we don't often think about.

Little Old Man Does Good

Previously, I posted about one of my students who I have referred to as "little old man" (or LOM for short). I had a lesson with him yesterday afternoon and he told me that he had been doing volunteer work before coming to the lesson.

One thing I must point out is that I rarely encounter a student who is doing volunteer work of any kind. I guess that the long hours most Japanese people work (and mostly working folks take English lessons) would make it very hard to dedicate themselves to other projects. LOM can probably do volunteer work because he is retired and only works on occasion as an adult education teacher (in computers and cell phones) or as a proctor for insurance employee qualification exams.

LOM said it would be difficult for him to tell me what type of work he was doing because the vocabulary was relatively complicated and the situation unusual but he managed to get through it with some help from his electronic dictionary. He told me that he was working at a halfway house for released criminals that was sponsored by the local government.

This information came as a surprise to me but this was mainly a reflection of my myopia about Japan and Japanese people. Despite knowing Japan has criminals and a slowly increasing crime rate, I assumed that they didn't have social programs to support convicts who had done their time. Given the fact that the culture sees criminal behavior as rather seriously shameful, I expected that they would simply choose not to recognize convicts by offering such programs. In retrospect, it seems naive of me not to consider they'd have such programs.

LOM told me that he's doing career counseling with convicts and trying to help them make the transition between prison and becoming productive members of society. I asked how it was for him and he told me that it's fine but counseling the murderers makes him a little nervous. I told him that it'd make me nervous, too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Since I was born and raised in a small rural town, I rarely saw travelling food vendors unless there was a carnival in town. Since moving to Tokyo, I've seen quite a few who offer a variety of food items depending on the season. Most of them offer up uniquely Japanese delicacies (like octopus dumplings) and I don't care much for them. The only ones my husband and I have ever sampled are gyoza (pot stickers) and roasted sweet potatoes.

The picture above is of a man who sells roasted sweet potatoes out of the back of his truck. You can see that he's got wood stacked up next to his oven. The wood cooking lends a unique taste and a wonderful smell to the potatoes. These trucks drive around neighborhoods playing a tape of a sing-song announcement so you know when they're close enough to purchase from.

The truck in these pictures was at a relatively well-trafficked intersection on New Year's day. This was part of the large batch of photos my husband got at that time but it wasn't specifically related to holiday activities as these trucks are around fairly often during the colder seasons, not only on holidays.

I used to have my husband run out and buy one of these potatoes for me on occasion when I heard them rolling by. The main problem I had with them (which compelled me to stop buying them) was that the potatoes are far too large for one person to eat at once and too dry to be very good when re-heated.

In the U.S., orange yams are the most common form of "sweet potato" and are generally served as part of holiday meals. In Japan, it's a large purple-skinned tuber with yellow flesh inside. I have prepared them myself for muffins or as a side dish in the past but they are exceptionally hard to handle. They are very hard to peel and secrete a sticky fluid when the skin is removed. I'm not sure if this is a property of all sweet potatoes or just the Japanese ones but it does dissuade me from preparing them on my own. I guess the fact that they're a pain to deal with is one of the reasons they are sold pre-cooked and cleaned in vacuum sealed bags in Japanese markets.

Lately, a local convenience store (QQ - a 100 yen shop) has been selling roasted sweet potatoes at the check-out counter. They smell good but I'm not sure if they'd measure up to the ones sold from the trucks. They do have the benefit of being smaller and cheaper (only 100 yen whereas the ones from trucks are 200-300 yen in my experience).

Recently, I found the sweet potato bean cakes pictured above in a local market and decided to give them a try. They were shockingly sweet and had an intense sweet potato flavor. In fact, it almost seemed like they were flavored with a sweet potato liqueur. They also seemed to have very little actual bean in them and may not be a bad souvenir for people to take home (provided your friends and family generally like the taste of sweet potatoes and very sweet treats).

When I worked in an office, sweet potato treats were a common omiyage (souvenir) when salesmen travelled to other cities and picked up an obligatory treat for the rest of the office. They were one of the few things I was always happy to sample.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"We Live With Nature"

The picture above is of a tire cover on a Japanese vehicle. It's a little hard to read so I'll type out the text here:

"A long time ago before human was born, there was only woods, grass, animals, birds and fish. When human was born, they helped the newly born baby, offering their bodies. Grass and animals became human's clothings, and then, they protected them from the rain, wind and cold. Winds and grass gave him their fruits, nuts and grains. Animals, birds and fish became human's food, and they grew him up. We will never forget their favors. We never live without nature. 'cause we live with nature."

This is not only a good example of some of the typical errors the Japanese make in Japanese to English translation but points out a very interesting (and somewhat odd) perspective on the food chain.

The author of this passage was either holding his tongue firmly in his or her cheek while writing or believes that nature really wants to make sure man survives. I wonder if it is an off-shoot of shinto beliefs to imply intent in the "sacrifices" that animals, plants, etc. make in order to "nurture" man. Since shintoism includes the belief that a "spiritual essence" resides in all things.

It struck me as relatively quaint as well as reflecting a notion that man is somehow elevated above other living creatures. Why would any living entity sacrifice itself to the survival of another species?

Of course, it could be that this is no more than a reflection of bad translating and the use of words like "offer", "help", "give" and "protect" are misleading choices. You find that translations often skew intent a fair amount and it's important never to reach conclusions without clarification.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Red on White

Since coming to Japan, I've suffered a whole host of health problems. Some have been chronic (like my back pain and arthritis) and a constant drain on my energy levels. Others have been acute and scary.

About two years after coming to Japan, I developed gall stones and had to have surgery. I attributed this both to a biological predisposition (my whole family has had their gall bladders removed) and the stress of working at Japan's worst language school (at least at that time), Nova. My recovery was slow and painful. No one warns you that you're going to come out of surgery feeling like a victim in a bad knife fight but that's pretty much the way it is.

The next frightening experience was when half my face froze up. This was definitely a stress reaction from an ongoing battle not to work in a sweat shop during the summer. The president of the company at that time shared an air conditioning bank with us and he was on top of a vent and we were totally shut off from any air in phone cubicles. He was freezing and we were dying. Anyway, I developed Bell's Palsy and was put on steroids for two months. It was bad enough that half my face was paralyzed but now I was also a snarling beast who couldn't control her emotions for about 2 months. No one warned me that the hormones that were going to thaw my face were going to make me feel like I was going insane.

Finally, I woke up one day with a blob of red on my eye. I'm not talking about bloodshot or tired eyes. I'm talking about what looked like a glob of deep red ink on a white tablecloth. This was very scary but ended up being the smallest problem with the least painful treatment. I went to the eye doctor and was tested and examined and told this sometimes happens. She gave me drops to put in my eye but I don't think that they really did much.

Yesterday morning, when I was saying goodbye to my husband as he headed off for a swim, I saw that he had one of these blotches on his eye as well. If I hadn't already experienced one, I'd have panicked over this but I knew it was one of those things that happens with age that clears up on its own. In his case, it's clearing up very rapidly. Mine was a bit bigger and took longer to dissipate.

When these things happen, I can't help but be reminded of how your body is breaking down as you age. This was reinforced all the more to me by ganglionic cysts on my right hand that I noticed yesterday. These types of things don't tend to happen to you when you're young. I'm not one of those people who gets worked up about my age or seeing birthdays go by. From an emotional and mental viewpoint, I'd rather be older than younger. However, I could do without all the breakdowns.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Audio Nutrition

logo pinched from The Teaching Company's web site...I hope they appreciate the free publicity

When I was younger, I listened to a lot of music and heavy metal in particular. After marrying, I reduced the amount of time spent listening to music more and more and now I rarely listen to any at all. I'm not sure if this is age, sensitivity to the emotions music can elicit in me, or simply a lack of interest in new music and being largely bored with the old.

These days, I'd sooner listen to spoken word rather than music. It could be that all the isolation from English living in Japan brings this about. It's impossible to say.

Over a long period of time, I've been listening to a lecture series on the High Middle Ages. The series is 24 lectures that last from 30-45 minutes and cover a broad range of topics. I finally finished the last lecture this evening. There are two things about the experience which I found remarkable. First of all, it was easier to follow and far more interesting to listen to lectures now as an adult than it was when I was in college or high school. The thought has occurred to me from time to time that 'education is wasted on youth' as they are often presented with the type of information they aren't ready to hear and have difficulty absorbing. While I considered myself a good student who was attentive in classes, I still think listening to lectures is something you benefit more from with age and maturity.

The other point was that I found that, despite my interest level and control over the delivery of content, I still found myself drifting in thought away from what I was listening to and had to consciously tune back in. Often, this sort of drift was cued by the fact that I almost always listened while cooking or doing housework and some thought about the task at hand distracted me. Had I sat at my desk with a notebook, I may have paid more attention but I doubt it.

The truth is that all our minds are meant to wonder. When I was studying psychology, I learned that we have an average duration of interest that lasts 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, we will lose more and more focus if we don't get a break. It's not that we have short attention spans. It's my guess that there may be a chemical process going on whereby your brain no longer operates at peak efficiency when attempting to store and process new information. Knowing of this common limitation, I often wonder why classes are so long in all levels of education. It seems we constantly try to fit the square pegs of our limited attention into the round hole of hour-long (or longer) class times.

Anyway, I learned a lot of interesting things from this series and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history. Some of the things of interest that I recall off the top of my head were:
  • Tales of chivalry (e.g., Arthurian legends) were stories written to spread chivalric code to knights who were not scholarly. The tales were not true but meant to be behavioral guides.
  • The Spanish Inquisition was not as widespread or as cruel as is commonly believed. It's not that it was a good thing by any stretch of the imagination but there were very strict rules by which one could be accused of heresy (such as only literate Christians could be accused) and several methods by which one could prove false accusation (by proving people accused you because they hated you).
  • The origin of giving an apple to teachers is based in the practice of not paying teachers and their being grateful to be left this food to eat when they had no money. Teachers were expected to impart knowledge without pay because their wisdom was a gift from God. (I mentioned this in a blogcritics piece I wrote.)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Cartoons and Crab Meat

Last night, I was flipping through channels looking for something interesting and found myself on the Japanese Cartoon Network. It's similar to the one in the U.S. except the cartoons are bilingual when they are in English and there is a mixture of Japanese cartoons as well.

The cartoon I happened to land on was Peanuts which was just finishing before Bugs Bunny started. Since I'm a fan of old Bugs Bunny cartoons, I decided to let the commercials play through and watch the upcoming cartoon. This is where things got weird.

The commercial that aired was a really long one about crabs. This is the sort of ad where some woman stuffs huge gobs of the featured food into her mouth while shrieking orgasmically. At one point, she looked like she was trying to gag herself by inserting the better part of an entire leg into her mouth and sucking off the meat. I'm not kidding. She easily stuck 4 inches of it in her mouth and it looked like more. No wonder her eyes were bugging out and she was making loud noises. I'm sure her uvula was bruised.

Anyway, the commercial was offering up 7 enormous spiky-looking crabs for about $100 so I was wondering who they think is watching cartoons at 9:00 pm. I'm doubting kids are jumping up and down begging their mothers to buy them crabs (though they may grow up thinking they may prove useful in foreplay after watching those ads). So, I'm wondering who this type of thing is aimed at.

I guess it could be the mothers of children who watch cartoons with their kids but my image of kids parked in front of the T.V. is one where it's an electronic babysitter while mothers are off doing the thousands of little things they must do to run a household and care for their families. Perhaps all the over the top expressions of delight are meant to force the mothers to come rushing into the living room to see if their kids have stumbled across some pornographic programs only to become entranced by the great value and obvious deliciousness of those monster crabs...or at least make them wonder if they can seek the gratification they're missing elsewhere in their lives through seafood consumption.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lemon Tart (Sugar-free)

I'm not as good at taking food porn shots as some bloggers so excuse my detached crust.

This recipe is a modification of a regular recipe for a lemon tart on "Joy of Baking". If you don't want to go sugar-free, I suggest following the original recipe. If you do want (or need) to go sugar-free though, this is one of the best pastries you can make. In fact, it's so good that you wouldn't know it was sugar-free unless you were told. Note that this recipe has the benefit of being pretty easy and foolproof. You mix both the crust in the filling in a food processor and you can't over mix or mess them up unless you measure incorrectly.

I had planned to make this recipe as dessert for guests over the weekend but, because I got sick, I didn't have the chance to do so. However, I had already bought all the ingredients and made one anyway. My husband loves this, especially when it's fresh. When fresh (but cooled), this is an extremely light dessert. After cooling, it has more of a light cheesecake feel to it because the lemon tartness smooths out a bit and the crust becomes denser as it absorbs moisture from the filling. Either way, it's delicious.

Note that you must use fresh lemons and fresh zest. For a dessert that relies so heavily on the lemon for flavor, the best quality is essential. I can buy two small lemons for 100 yen at the local QQ so I just zest them first then juice them. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of lemon juice but, if your lemons don't yield enough juice, just add enough water to bring the liquid level up to a half cup. The zest contributes as much to the lemon flavor and scent as the juice.

(Sugar-free) Lemon Tart recipe:


1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granular Splenda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold butter (cut into pieces)
2-4 tablespoons cold water


5 ounces/140 grams cream cheese (cut into pieces)
1/2 cup granular Splenda
1/2 cup powdered skim milk
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 eggs
zest of 2 small lemons

For the crust: Place the flour, granular Splenda, and salt into a food processor and pulse it a few times to mix. Add the cut up pieces of butter and process until the butter is completely integrated (it should resemble cornmeal).

Add cold water one tablespoon at a time until the flour forms a dough (see picture above). Depending on how cool your kitchen is and how cold your butter, the dough can be quite toothpaste-like. Warmer butter can make a very pasty dough but it's not a problem if this happens. Just be careful not to add more water than necessary. Usually, I need to add 3 or 4 tablespoons though I have gone as high as 5.

Spread the dough into an (un-greased) pie plate or tart pan. I don't bother to spread up the sides because the filling is relatively thin and a shallow cheesecake-style crust works fine.

Bake the crust at 425 degrees F. (220 degrees C.) for 10-14 minutes until it has browned and cooked through. The base should resemble a big, crispy cookie. Set aside until needed.

For filling: Place the cream cheese and granular Splenda in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the eggs and process until well-incorporated. Scrape down the sides and re-process as needed. Add the powdered milk and process until well-mixed. Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and process (and scrape down) until thoroughly mixed. The mixture should resemble a thin custard. Pour the mixture over the cooked shell (it does not have to be cooled but final baking time will be reduced if you pour the filling over a hot shell). Bake at 350 degrees F. (175 degrees C.) for 15-20 minutes until the center is just set. Serve with whipped cream. If you want to make your own sugar-free whipped cream, the recipe follows.

Sugar-free whipped topping recipe:

1/2 cup (120 ml) whipping cream
2-3 packets Splenda (not granular)
dash of vanilla essence
1 teaspoon pectin

Pour the whipping cream into a large (preferably cold) bowl and sprinkle with Splenda and pectin and add vanilla. Use an electric whisk on low speed to mix everything and introduce some bubbles. Turn up the speed and mix until stiff peaks form.

Note that the addition of pectin is not strictly necessary. If you've ever made homemade whipped cream, you'll see that it tends to separate after a day or so. Pectin won't stop this from happening entirely but it will slow it down greatly as well as make for a stiffer whip for a longer period of time.

Additionally, keep in mind that granular Splenda (which measures like sugar) is not to be confused with Splenda sold in packets. Packet Splenda is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sweetness and granular Splenda measures precisely like sugar. If you were to use as much packet Splenda as granular, the sweetness would be overbearing and awful so be careful to use the right one.

I've experimented a lot with making desserts sugar-free and I've found that, in general, granular Splenda can be used as a substitute for powdered sugar in baked goods with little adjustment. If you use it in place of granulated sugar, you start to have problems because granulated sugar absorbs liquids and adds moisture. It also adds crispness and browning. In the case of this tart, the butter accomplishes the browning and crispness in the crust and the filling's loss of moisture absorption is made up for by the addition of powdered milk.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sibling Rivalry 2

The supermarket would probably be a good place for a developmental psychologist to observe the interaction among siblings to see how they relate to one another. Previously, I posted about a brother and sister who fought over a package of chicken legs in a local market. Today, in the local butcher shop, I witnessed a similar altercation between two brothers.

The younger son was probably about 5 years old and the older perhaps 8. The younger one meandered around the shop and grabbed a box of Kiri cream cheese and proceeded to run all over the small crowded shop with it (sometimes colliding with other customers who were waiting their turn) while his mother ignored him.

After a few minutes of seeing his younger brother delightedly waving around this box of cheese (which his mother probably wasn't going to buy anyway), the older brother snatched it away from him and purposefully strode away. It was clearly a little power game. The younger brother then started howling and crying. The mother, of course, just ignored the whole thing.

This situation made me consider two things, one which I've thought of often when seeing kids in public and the other which hasn't occurred to me before. The first is why parents don't do anything about the disruptive behavior of their children in public. For one thing, her younger child was using food as a toy (I've seen this before) which someone else will probably buy later. For another, she didn't do anything about the competitive behavior of her older son which was clearly designed to taunt her younger son. And finally, she was completely indifferent to the other people in the shop who had to deal with the collisions and the screaming. It's parents like her who fuel the fires of "kid-free" advocates who regard parenthood with contempt.

The second thing I wondered was if I was just as obnoxious as a child. Even as an adult, I'm rather inclined to tease and torment for reactions (in what I hope is an endearing and humorous fashion). My husband is capable of resisting me and mainly just laughs at my attempts to goad him into reacting. To be fair, most of the things I do are meant to make him laugh.

As a child, I used to torment my poor sister all the time. She would be sitting somewhere reading her book peacefully and I'd do something or other to elicit a reaction. My most famous incident, which my mother frequently recounted to others with amusement, is when I did something (I don't remember what) to anger my sister sufficiently that she chased me outside in winter. I was barefoot. There was snow on the ground. But, I was still amused and satisfied with the response.

So, I can't say I don't understand why the kids may do what they do but I think the incidents I observed were more about robbing the younger child of something in a show of dominance whereas I tended to do what I did for attention (being the younger child of two, I wasn't really interested in power).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

My Craptacular Mailbox

It seems my mailbox had a flyer explosion as there were 12 pieces of promotional garbage in it. There were only 3 actual pieces of mail in amongst this big mess.

The flyer with the babe on the left is for a new health club near the local JR (Japan Railway) station called "WOW'D" (short for "Work Out World" it seems). The main selling point of this place seems to be that all the equipment has video screens built into it so that you can watch something while you exercise (perhaps motivational video since the slogan for this slick joint is "motivates everyone to be fit"). It's also got higher rates than the place nearby that my husband uses for swimming.

Three of the others are menus for delivery places. The biggest one is a Chinese restaurant that we've had food from before. It's okay but heavy on the noodle selection and light on chicken dishes and neither my husband nor I is a noodle fan. They also used to feature a picture of what looked like a whole baby pig (snout, eyes and all) on the front of their menus and it made us too sick to even open their menu. Eventually, they changed the picture for that dish. The tiny menu is for an overpriced steak place and another is for a sushi restaurant. Of course, I think that there's no such thing as a steak restaurant in Japan which isn't overpriced.

My husband and I don't get delivered food or eat out much because we're trying to live frugally and delivered food costs between two and five times more than eating in. We sometimes get pizza or curry but the places we order from do not leave flyers in our mailbox. Perhaps they get enough business that they don't have to paper bomb us all the time to get customers.

Most of the rest of the flyers are for massage and relaxation services and, ironically, "recycle" shops that will pick up items you don't want anymore (for a fee in most cases) and clean them up and sell them. I say it's ironic because these flyers make the most frequent appearances in our mailbox and represent the greatest waste yet the shops themselves are supposed to be reducing waste by recycling items rather than allowing them to be tossed in the trash.

In the past, a much greater portion of the paper left in our mailbox was for various pornographic services. Some of it was for "Q-dial" girls which I think was some sort of phone sex service. Some of it was for purchasing porno videos and the rest possibly for back door ways to access prostitutes. Some of it was pretty funny stuff. I'm guessing that the internet has offered a more discreet and cost-effective means of reaching their target audience than having someone drive around in a scooter dropping flyers in mailboxes.

The main problem we have, aside from the tremendous waste this represents, is that real mail can get lost in the pile of trash unless you painstakingly sort out each and every piece. It's been a great concern when we've had to wait for communication from the immigration office. When you apply for a visa, you fill out a postcard which they send you to notify you that your application has been processed and you have to return to get your visa. The card can easily get lost in such a mess and then life can be very complicated as the card has a deadline by which you should appear at the office.

In the United States, this sort of mailbox pollution is illegal. You can only get into mailboxes via junk mail. I'm pretty sure that it has little to do with the U.S. being more enlightened and more to do with the postal service making sure they get paid as part of the customer snail mail spamming process.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Coming of Age Day

I've been under the weather for the past few days and am really not out of the woods yet so I home those who made comments will forgive me for not offering responses. My on-line activity has been relatively limited and I spent all of yesterday in bed.

Yesterday was "Coming of Age Day", a Japanese national holiday, and it has been mentioned in many other blogs as well as can be researched regarding the traditional celebration in Wikipedia. Essentially, the age in Japan that one is considered to be an adult in society's estimation is 20. The holiday celebrates those who have turned 20 in the past year. It's interesting that adulthood comes a bit later for the Japanese than for Americans (where 18 is considered as the age at which one is an adult) but unsurprising since the Japanese spend a longer period of time dependent upon their families and take longer before they are thoroughly immersed in the burdens of adult life.

I thought I would add some of the anecdotal information I've gathered from students because it is rather different from what is usually reported. The students I have asked have said that the main thing they do is go to the local government office to hear a speech from some official. The content is usually pretty boring but is meant to "prepare" them for the change in responsibility they will experience as adults. Aside from that, my students have told me that they receive a gift from the local government. I asked the students if they got it for sitting through this boring speech but was told that this gift is sent via mail to all 20-year-olds registered at the government office.

When I asked what sort of gifts they received, I was told they were boring, pragmatic, and generally the type of things you'd already have if you needed one. For instance, one student got a schedule book. Another got a diary. I asked if our tax money was used to purchase these relatively undesired gifts and was told that the items were provided by donations from local merchants or directly from local merchants. I'm not sure if these gifts are offered to everyone in Japan or if they are more common among the various wards in larger cities since they are probably wealthier and have a larger pool of merchants to hit up for freebie gifts.

Generally speaking, this holiday isn't one the Japanese get all that enthusiastic about. It's really mainly another day off for them. That can be said about a lot of the one-off Japanese national holidays though.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Platform Traitor

I consider myself a lapsed Mac zealot. That's right. I used to be one of those obnoxious Mac users who thought PC's were the devil's spawn and ownership of one constituted a deep-seated streak of masochism.

With the introduction of Mac OS X, I took off my Apple-colored glasses as it introduced me to a whole new world of instability and hassle. All of a sudden, the solution to my problems was opening up a terminal window and typing in a bunch of arcane UNIX commands and Mac power users were smugly and snottily telling other less "in the know" Mac users that any instability in Mac OS X was somehow the user's fault. What's worse, I couldn't even empty my trash because somehow I didn't have permission to do so anymore. Mac users had gone from regarding the DOS prompt with contempt to hailing the wonders of the UNIX prompt. We were becoming the enemy.

I waited a long time to fully adopt OS X though I did give it a shot a few more times with no real satisfaction. During that time, I bought a Windows XP machine and then watched as every upgrade to OS X brought the Mac interface closer and closer to the Windows interface and not in a necessarily positive way. All of the interface quirks I disliked in Windows were cropping up into the Mac OS.

What is more, I like to play games and PCs are still better for on-line gaming and torrents, for unknown reasons, always download faster on PCs. It's not that the PC was any bed of roses either. It's just that the Mac's bed of roses was sprouting thorns and looking far less comfortable and attractive as time went on.

For these reasons and more, my husband eventually migrated to using PC laptops rather than Mac ones and I became a dual-platform user opting to alternate new computer purchases between PCs and Macs. While I've had pretty good luck with desktop PCs, my husband's experiences with laptops have been far less positive. His first PC laptop, a fairly nice Dell, died in just under 2 years and spent the latter year having a variety of quirks (like ethernet access that came and went constantly). Eventually, important enough components crapped out that the cost of repair exceeded the value of the computer.

My sister, who knows PCs far better than me or nearly anyone I know, told me that PC laptops commonly die in 2-3 years. Suddenly, Macs started to look better as I've never had a Mac laptop fail aside from a PowerBook 540c which a leaky air conditioner dripped water all over. However, there were still enough positive aspects on the software side that we went for another PC laptop.

This time, however, we decided that, if these things had a short expiration date, we'd go for the cheapest one we could. Unfortunately, at the time, we didn't consider that a cheap one, despite it's adequate CPU, gorgeous screen, and relatively lavish amount of RAM, was going to come with a totally crappy video card and game playing might be a problem.

It turned out that the video card was a problem but not in the way one might expect. It could play games but it pawned off so much of the load onto the CPU that it caused the fan to run constantly and the laptop was constantly overheating and shutting itself off. Enter the device you see pictured at the top. This is a coolpad that we ordered from Amazon Japan. It has 3 little fans that keep the air circulation going sufficiently that my husband's laptop no longer shuts down. It runs off of USB power, is light, and not too thick. It was, however, relatively expensive at 4,400 yen or about $42.

This represents yet another one of those electronic items that you can get for a song in the U.S. but cannot find cheaply in Japan. The friend who recommended this to me (hello, Shawn) said his mother procured one from Amazon U.S. for about $15. When I researched them in Japan, the prices were from $33-70 and there were only about 4 models anyway. I guess Japan just isn't getting enough cheap imports from China or Taiwan or wherever.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Little Things

When we first arrived in Japan, we noticed a lot of little differences which shaped the experience of living here. After awhile, you grow so accustomed to those differences (or learn to work around them) that you forget they are there.

Recently, my husband and I received an actual letter from a former coworker who returned home to England quite some time ago. Since she sent us an actual letter and we're uncertain of how often she checks her e-mail (or if her former address is still valid), we decided we should send a proper letter back to her.

Since I gave up on Christmas cards several years ago, I haven't had occasion to send an actual physical letter for quite some time. Sometimes I send parcels but rarely anything that requires an envelope. I dug around in my long-neglected stationery cabinet and found what I needed and was reminded of a difference I hadn't thought of for quite some time. Envelopes in Japan don't come with the kind of dry gummed surface that you lick (like a stamp) to moisten and then close the letter. They either have nothing at all or they have a double-sided tape-like strip you pull off.

When I first arrived, I was annoyed at having to dig out a glue stick to seal letters and grumbled about how stupid it seemed to be not to have the same sort of adhesive that we use in the U.S. A few years of leftover un-used Christmas card envelopes (from cards purchased from the U.S.) which sealed themselves shut after Japan's long, humid summer taught me a lesson about why designs are sometimes different than those back home.

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Year's Cards

I've read that the postmaster in Japan guarantees delivery of cards (nengajo) on January 1st but I got my latest one today. Either my students are slack (but still thoughtful) or the postmaster is a big fibber.

My husband and I used to get more cards than we do. We don't send out any ourselves so I guess it's a suprise we get any at all. Most of the ones he gets are made by his students and handed to him in his lessons. The card at the top was one of those cards.

The same student also made the Christmas card above. She's a very good artist and I've seen some other things she's drawn by hand including a drawing of Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Spain. Despite the fact that this art looks somewhat fetishistic and has the torn look of modern collages, she is actually capable of drawing quite realistically. I'm not certain but I think she made these as composites on her computer and did the drawings on the computer and that's possibly why they're more stylized than her previous work. When I first looked at the New Year's card, I didn't even realize that that was a boar on the card.

A pre-made card from one of my students (who I assist with subtitling movies and T.V. shows).

A lot of my students and co-workers have mentioned that New Year's cards are a burden and they don't necessarily enjoy writing them or receiving them. I guess that makes them little different from people in the U.S. who aren't fond of the practice of giving and receiving Christmas cards. Like many old snail mail practices, the original purpose of holiday cards was to keep in touch with people who lived faraway and had little contact with you. These days, with e-mail and phones, I think people would just as soon not make the special effort on festive occasions.

Some New Year's cards include a postal lottery opportunity and the recipient can win a little money if their number is drawn. You have to compare the numbers on your card with a list in the Japanese papers. On the card pictured above, you can see the numbers across the bottom. I've received a fair number of such cards over the years but never checked the numbers. Who knows how many millions of yen I've given a pass on? ;-)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Back to Business As Usual

Today was my first lesson with a student after, what was for me, a 4-day New Year's holiday break. Today's only student was the fellow I frequently refer to as "the little old man". I don't mean it disrespectfully though I can see that it may come across this way. He's both endearing in his quirks and tedious in his subject matter.

I think I come up with nicknames like this for my students because my husband will relate to them better when I talk about them if I characterize them so. If I refer to them by name, he says, "which one is she?"

"Little old man" (LOM from henceforth to save typing) is the most athletic in my lessons despite his age. That's not to say he's an athlete outside the lesson but that he's a perpetual motion machine on the sofa. He's constantly sitting forward and back, rubbing his legs, moving his arms, crossing and uncrossing his legs, and rubbing his face. When he leaves, my sofa cover is always twisted around.

Today, I asked LOM about his New Year's activities. He told me that many Japanese people spend the first day of the usual 3-day holiday at home (if they don't go to a temple or shrine) and relax. The second and third days, according to him, are spent receiving visitors or visiting others. Since he's 64, his status is likely more patriarchal and more people come to him than his going to them.

He said that 31 relatives visited him during the 2nd and 3rd of January but it was good because more of his relatives were women than men. I found this a curious thing to say so I asked him to explain why he felt this way. He said that women are more "cheerful" and make better guests whereas men are "calm". This isn't really a surprise to me because I've been exposed to more than my share of excessively cheerful women in offices but I hadn't expected this general personality trend to extend to family gatherings.

In general, I think Japanese women have an unfair burden on them socially to be "up" and to fill an occasion with positive energy. Men can sit back tight-lipped and do nothing to further the conversation or act in ways that further the atmosphere of a gathering if they so desire. Women feel rather obliged to be the facilitators of good relations and social lubricators.

That's not to say that all women do this nor that it is something which is entirely unique to Japan. Women traditionally are seen as responsible for being good hostesses even in western cultures but I think there's often more of a discrepancy between men and women in Japanese culture on this point because man are pressured to be "manly" which generally means being quiet, composed and assured and women to be "feminine" which generally means cheerful, subservient, and accommodating.

Some of my female students seem to be naturally buoyant and bursting with positive energy whereas others find the need to put on this front at work positively draining and tiresome. It could be that the ones I find "naturally" energetic feel obliged to put on the show for me and the others do not but it's not the sort of thing I can really ask. After all, I can hardly say, "you seem really happy and energetic in your lessons all the time...are you faking it for my sake?"

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chicken Burgers in Tomato Sour Cream Sauce (Low Carb)

I've been hesitating to post this recipe for quite some time. It's not because it's bad. In fact, this is an extremely tasty dish which I make fairly often. It's nutritious, cheap, and low carb. You can also make it with ingredients that are easily purchased in Tokyo supermarkets. The reason I've hesitated is that it photographs terribly. It may look sloppy and strangely orange but it's really delicious.

Generally speaking, I don't care what food looks like but there's something about putting it out for public consumption which makes me wary. It's also possible that living in Japan, where the appearance of food is often more important than the taste, is starting to rub off on me. After years of sampling food which looked great but was a huge disappointment, you'd think I'd start shopping around for uglier-looking dishes.

While I make this recipe with chicken burger, it can be made with hamburger or turkey burger if you prefer. I've never tried it with beef but I imagine that beef would add a fair bit more oil to the sauce so I'd recommend using lean ground beef. Also, if you want to reduce the fat content, you can cut the sour cream quanitity in half and substitute one heaping tablespoon of plain yogurt. Be advised though that the yogurt adds much more of a sour flavor than the sour cream.

Chcken Burgers in Tomato Sour Cream Sauce
  • 4 (raw) burgers of any size (I use 3.5-4 oz./100-120 grams) of any ground meat you favor (chicken, turkey, beef)
  • 2 large tomatoes or 3 small ones (cut into small chunks)
  • 1 small onion (finely-diced)
  • 4 cloves of garlic (crushed)
  • 100 grams/3.5 ounces sour cream
  • 1-2 tbsp. olive oil (as needed for frying)
  • 4-1 oz./28 gram slices of cheese or 4 oz./115 grams of grated "mixed cheese" (optional)
  • salt and coarsely-ground black pepper (to taste)
Heat a large skillet and then add the oil and allow it to heat a little over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook it for about 2 minutes until slightly aromatic (this will flavor the oil). Add the onions and tomatoes. Salt and pepper them to taste and stir. Even if you don't like pepper, try to add just a bit as it boosts the flavor. Cook uncovered until most of the moisture has cooked off and the vegetables have shrunken. Stir every 5 minutes or so to make sure they are not sticking or burning. This should take 20-30 minutes.

Push the vegetables to the sides of the skillet and place the burgers in the center. Cook the burgers, covered, until they are done, turning over at the half-way point. Be sure to keep the burgers covered to trap the moisture in the skillet. This is used for the sauce.

Place 1 oz/28 g. of cheese in the bottom of each of 4 dishes (if desired). Place the cooked burgers on top of the cheese. Add the sour cream to the vegetables and juices and stir until smooth and hot. If you substitute yogurt for some of the sour cream, stir it in last with the heat off or on very low so it doesn't curdle. Serve the sauce over the 4 burgers, dividing it evenly.

This works really well as a meal of leftovers as it re-heats wonderfully in the microwave. I store the extra in microwave-safe Rubbermaid sandwich boxes and pop them into the microwave for quick dinners.

By the way, "mixed cheese" is one of the only kinds of natural cheese (as opposed to processed cheese) that can be found in the average Japanese supermarket for less than the price of caviar. Most of the cheese in Japanese shops is processed cheese.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Year's Day (2007) - Pt. 4 -The Liquor Shop

This particular post isn't as much about New Year's day happenings as it is about a local liquor shop which is pretty unusual in Japan. However, the pictures were taken on New Year's day and some of the activities are unique to that day so I'm closing out my reports with it.

This particular shop has several unique attributes. The first one is that they sell a great deal of imported beer from around the world. If you've been thirsting fo a particular brew and haven't seen it since you arrived in Tokyo, this place has a pretty good chance of selling it. Some of the stand-outs are Henry Weinhard's and Anchor Steam which are west coast brands. They also have Rolling Rock and Guiness. My husband, who is the only one in our household who drinks alchohol, said there are over 40 varieties including Mexican, German and Chinese beer varieties. It doesn't come cheap though as the prices tend to be about $3-$3.50 a bottle.

On New Year's day, they were standing out in front (as pictured above) giving free drinks of sake from wooden boxes (masu). The fellow doing the pouring offered my husband a drink but he declined since he's not much into wine of any sort.

These boxes are traditionally made of cypress wood and the serving fellow was setting them aside after each drink. I'm wondering who got the unhappy task of having to wash them all out after passersby had had their fill.

The second point that makes this shop unique is that they are extremely foreigner-friendly. In fact, if you look at the "help wanted" sign above, all of it is in English as well as Japanese. That means they'd hire you even if you were a gaijin so long as you had a driver's license. It is relatively unusual for shops which do nor require a foreign language as part of the work involved to be so open to foreigners. In fact, I've never seen a sign like this anywhere else in Tokyo.

The subject of signs leads me to the next unique aspect of this shop and that is that the English on the signs (click this one to read it more easily) is always correct. My husband tells me that he has seen foreigners working at the shop around the time of the tanabata festival celebration in our area. I'm not sure what the connection is but these people could be a poster business/family for a truly internationalized Japan. They present a culturally-integrated front more than any small business I've ever seen.

Finally, my favorite unique aspect of this place is that they have had a cat at the front desk off and on during all of the years we've been going by this place. The cat isn't always there, mind you, but his box is always there. I'm guessing he can't always hang out around the cash register because he's got important business to attend to.

This cat is rather unique-looking because he has a moustache-like coloration under his nose but he's much more than that if you look closely enough.

This is a focus on another angle. The picture hanging on the wall says "business manager" and he has his own business card taped to his box. These people have a great sense of humor, and they allow you to take pictures inside the shop without hesitation. They almost make me wish I was a drinker so I could patronize them more often.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Day (2007) - Pt. 3 -The Shrine Area

Among all the pictures my husband took on New Year's day, these are the ones I'm least qualified to speak about because they involve Japanese religious rituals with which I'm relatively unfamiliar. The truth is that the reason I'm unfamiliar with them is that the vast majority of my students don't understand them either. Those who visit shrines on New Year's eve or New Year's day go through the motions but know very little about the underlying meaning.

The extent to which I know about them is largely related to what I learned during my serious preoccupation with sumo. A lot of shinto purification rituals are a part of sumo so I can tie what the wrestlers did before entering the ring and how they dressed with some of the scenes at the shrine.

The picture above is an area which eventually leads into a shrine but isn't an entry area itself. This point represents where a back of a long line to actually reach the shrine ends.

This is a combinations of photos of sections of the line. If you click on it and look at the bigger view, you get a better idea of how it snaked around a block. The line was about 150-200 people deep around 3:30 pm. The first picture is by the crosswalk shown in the first picture.

The line eventually leads to this point of general entry into the area of celebration. You may notice that there are crossing guards at both ends of the line helping out.

This is the ultimate destination of those in the line. People step up to it, clap their hands, pray and throw money into the white box that they are standing in front of.

This second view shows that the box is very large and hollow. My students do tell me about this process as some of them do it. They say they generally pray for the usual things like good health, prosperity and well-being. It's not a particularly deep or religious experience and most of them do it as a custom more than out of a sincere feeling that it will affect the outcome of the coming year. I've never actually met a deeply spiritual Japanese person who isn't a member of a Christianity-based religion. That doesn't mean they aren't out there but I don't think there are many of them.

This is a little area where people can do a purification ritual . My husband said the line for this area was relatively short compared to the area where prayers were made and contributions tossed into the box.
This is a closer look at the water and the cups. My husband said he did not see what people actually did but this type of long-handled cup is familiar to me from watching sumo. Sumo wrestlers drink from such cups (and spit out the water) before entering the ring. They also toss salt into the ring. I don't know if people drink water in this area near the shrine or if they wash with it but, if it involves drinking, it may explain the short lines. They may not feel entirely comfortable with sharing the cups with strangers.

The little strips of paper attached to this frame are tied there by the visitors. People write their wishes for the coming year on them. I've seen these types of strips hung in a wide variety of areas including subway stations. There are little year of the boar placards hanging around the top.

This is a close-up of one of the placards. You can buy them for 500 yen (about $4.50) or so from vendors near the shrine. My husband bought me one as a souvenir and its hanging next to my computer desk now. Before he told me about buying one, I mentioned that I thought they were nice and I'd have purchased one had I been there. I guess he knows me pretty well. ;-)

We are uncertain about what this area is for but the sign mentions a specific date (November 22, 1990) and the royal family. The altar design reminds me of the small altars in Japanese homes where people pray to their ancestors but I doubt this is related to the internment of royalty. However, I could be wrong.

These are sacred arrows or "hamaya" which are good luck charms. They are supposed to ward off demons because of their ability to slay evil creatures. The price on these items in Japanese is 1,000 or 2,000 yen (about $9-$19). I'm not sure what the rakes are all about but the character says "hand".

This is a collection of tiny little bells shaped in the figures of the Chinese zodiac. Each is 500 yen or about $4.00. They are about an inch and a half long and an inch high. My husband bought me the tiger one as a souvenir. They're incredibly adorable and I'd have had to resist buying one of each had I been there. They're so rounded and stylized that it's a little hard to make out what each one is without looking up the animals represented in the zodiac. Click on the picture to see the large version and try and guess.

This is what becomes of last year's little souvenirs and good luck charms. It's not a pretty sight, is it? All the lovely items you buy become outdated and part of a large pile of trash.

The trash is put to "good use" though because it's used to keep fires burning to keep people warm. I'm guessing there is a spiritual reason why these items should be burned or most people wouldn't bother carrying them back to the shrine and would just toss them (because it'd be a lot easier). I think the trash heap is so large because more people come at night when there are fireworks and there's a greater sense of anticipation as the clock ticks down and they have more than can reasonably be burned over night. The backlog is likely saved to burn during the less-heavily trafficked daytime visits.

What's a festival without food? There were several food vendors there including this takoyaki (octopus dumplings) stand. The fellow on the right was so tuckered out by all the holiday activity that he went to sleep on the spot. I always marvel that so many Japanese people seem able to sleep in uncomfortable situations and places.

Here's a close-up of the takoyaki-making process. It's not really a pretty sight. The preparation area looks none too clean but I guess these people have probably been going non-stop since last night and a mess was bound to happen. Maybe the napping fellow is in charge of the clean-up.

What Japanese New Year's festivities are complete without crepes? That wonderful, traditional Japanese, er...well, perhaps not everything is about tradition. This fellow uses limited space to his advantage and both stores his stock of sauces and fillings and advertises the varieties available. The oddest item on the table is the peanut butter. Peanut butter and crepes sounds like an unfortunate clash of French and American culture.

This is the okonomiyaki table. This is one of those dishes which is hard to explain because it includes a lot of variations by region and to the taste of the consumer. It's more or less a savory cross between an omelet and a pancake with very little flour and a large amount of egg as the base then a wide variety of other crap thrown on top. I had this once when I first came to Japan and the sauce and fish components put me off. Every Japanese person I've ever asked about this dish is crazy about it.

Finally, we have a little boy playing a badminton-style game with his mother in the area. I'm not sure what this game is but my husband said several other kids were also playing it with what looked like a shuttlecock.

My overall impression after reading my brother-in-law's coverage of night celebrations and seeing my husband's pictures of day celebrations is that the day-time events and shops that remain open seem more kid-oriented (or family-oriented) in general and that you'll find people with families out and about on New Year's day whereas you'll see mostly adults late at night. This makes sense since it's probably harder for kids to stay up late (even if they would enjoy the fireworks) and it's colder in the evenings.