Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Indulge Me

Images pinched from the Sheldon archives.

I usually don't make these sorts of posts because it seems rather silly to post about a link to another site but I came across a "political "site while I was reading Sheldon (a great comic that is full of charm - I encourage everyone to give it a read).

If you haven't seen Superman II though, you won't get it. Go here and Kneel.

DVD Burning Oddity

My husband and I recently purchased a spindle of 50 Mitsubishi PC DVD data discs. We've purchased this particular brand on several occasions in the past including another spindle and have not had any difficulties with them.

With the most recent batch though, I've had the strangest experience. When I first tried burning some discs, I got errors when attaching my external DVD burner to both my PC and Mac (both of which I'd burned successfully from before). I thought the discs had been changed and were now incompatible with my DVD burner so I had my husband try to burn a disc on his notebook. His first burn was successful but the second one failed with a similar problem as my other two computers.

The only difference between his first burn and second (and my burn attempts) was in how the disc was named. On his first burn, the disc was titled with an automatically generated number rather than a name. Before someone says I may have used an illegal character in my naming, I'll mention that I'm well aware of issues you can have when using things like "?", ":", ";", etc. In fact, on each of my attempts, I named the disc differently and only used letters of the alphabet (in one case, just a simple name) and the character "-". So, I can state emphatically that the failures weren't due to illegal characters.

Since that first successful burn, I have gone back to my Mac and used the external burner to make multiple discs named with the same sequence of numbers as the first successful disc. Lo and behold, every disc thus named regardless of content has been a success. It's a little annoying to have to name the discs in such a manner but it's better than tossing out a large stack of new DVD-Rs.

This situation has me pretty stumped. I've never known a disc to succeed only with a sequence of numbers as its name. If anyone can clue me in as to why this might be happening, I'd be grateful as I'm very curious about the cause.

Cashew Chicken Salad (Low Carb)

This is a rare recipe that is all my own creation rather than a derivative or modification of another recipe. However, I can't say that the concept of combining cashews and chicken is exactly a novel one and I'm sure that there are recipes out there like this one. There is one relatively unique ingredient though.

I created this recipe because one of the cheapest types of meat you can buy in Japan is chicken breast meat for 29 yen (24 cents) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.). Unfortunately, to get this price, you have to buy a large bag with about 6-8 (half) breasts (1.3-2 kg. or 2.8-4.4 lb.). I'm pretty sure that this chicken has also already been frozen and thawed so it cannot be re-frozen raw. This is more chicken than two people can eat before it goes off and my husband doesn't care much for white meat on the whole.

In order to take advantage of this very cheap meal resource, I came up with a way to use up a good portion of the breasts in a manner that my husband would enjoy. He has this salad for lunch about once every month or two. This recipe makes 4 quite large servings or 6 more modest ones.

Cashew Chicken Salad recipe:
  • 4 (half) chicken breasts (with skin is best)
  • salt, pepper, onion powder (to taste)
  • 1-2 tbsp. olive oil (for frying)
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1 medium onion (diced)
  • 4-6 tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 1-2 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. cinnamon
Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper, and onion powder. Heat a large skillet. Add the olive oil and tilt the pan to coat the bottom with oil. Place the breasts skin side down in the skillet, cover, and cook over medium heat until half done (it may help to split especially large breasts for more even cooking). Turn over and finish cooking. Be sure to keep the chicken covered at all times to keep the juices inside. When the chicken is just finished, remove it from the pan and allow it to cool enough for it to be handled comfortably. Reserve the juices in the pan.

Place the cashews in the bottom of a very large bowl and coarsely crush them (I use the bottom of a large, sturdy cup). Add the diced onion to the bowl. Remove the skin from the chicken and cut it into bite-size pieces. Add it to the bowl then sprinkle it with garlic powder and cinnamon. Pour the reserved juice over the chicken. Add the mayonnaise and stir well. The juices and mayonnaise will combine to make a savory dressing. If necessary, add more salt to taste. Serve warm or cold.

This recipe will require a bit of experimentation to meet your specific seasoning and consistency desires. Some people may prefer more or less mayonnaise and/or cashews. I like a lot of garlic and my husband actually likes a great deal of cinnamon on it. After I add the initial one tablespoon, he has me pour more over the top of his serving.

Cinnamon may seem an odd seasoning for chicken but it works very well. My sister, who is a member of the SCA, told me some time ago that cinnamon was used frequently to season various meats in the middle ages. If you're squeamish about using it, I'd recommend at least adding a teaspoon and sampling it before giving up on using it. It really does add greatly to the taste of the salad.

If you're living in Japan where cashews are expensive and sold in tiny packets, you may want to consider a trip to a Costco . A very large cannister of them can be had for 1200 yen. Even considering the cashews, this makes for a very cheap meal at around 200 yen a serving for 4 substantial servings. If you consider many people spend around 500-1000 yen for lunch everyday, you can see where this would be very economical.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Instant (and Unsanitary) Recycling

These days most of my observations come from contact with my students and the things I see the locals in my neighborhood doing. I guess it's unfortunate that blogging and digital cameras weren't around back when I was traveling all over Tokyo and local cities most weekends during much of my first decade here. Since I'm not a big shopper, a lot of my observation is done while grocery shopping or handling necessary errands in our neighborhood. Recently, there's something I've noticed at the local markets which I'm not so sure is a great idea.

Some time ago, I noticed that recycling bins for Styrofoam food trays were next to the tables for bagging your own groceries. This appeared to be a rather odd place for such a bin, particularly when all the other bins (including one for Styrofoam trays) were outside.

While I was bagging my groceries, I noticed that an older lady next to me was opening up her package of chicken and removing the tray from under it. She used the plastic from the outside of the tray to re-wrap the chicken then tossed the tray in the bin next to the bagging area.

This situation has me a bit torn. On the one hand, I applaud the instant nature of this type of recycling. On the other, I'm rather appalled by the unsanitary nature of it. It's not only a matter of seeing people expose their raw meat and seafood products to an area full of other people (who may be coughing, sneezing, or breathing out all kinds of unsavory things) and possibly allowing juices from those products to drip onto the bagging tables. It's also the fact that you cannot easily remove any raw meat or seafood from its packaging without getting residue from it on your hands. In fact, with chicken and the way it often leaks blood or fluid into its tray, this is pretty much impossible. It's sometimes the case that so much fluid leaks out of packaged chicken that it seeps through the plastic wrap when it's still fully wrapped.

So, you've got people handling their bags, bikes or other parts of the store after touching raw meat or seafood and spreading around some pretty potentially nasty bacteria. Salmonella is especially a risk from chicken juices. Since this system seems mainly set-up to avoid having to collect your trays, wash them, and then take them back later for recycling, it seems mainly to be catering to people's laziness when it comes to recycling rather than serving a greater purpose.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

All That and a Bag of Chips

When I chose the title for this post, I wondered what the origin of the saying "all that and a bag of chips" was and what it was supposed to mean. In my case, you'll soon see I'm being more literal about it than the common usage. An urban dictionary says that it means something is cool or that a woman is attractive. It also says the saying was popular in the 90s. I thought it was considerably older than that. I prefer to use sayings that pre-date my own birth (like "bee's knees" of Grandpa Simpson's favorites) but you have to work with what you've got.

Moving on to the point of this post, such as it is...

Last night I was feeling pretty down because of a series of unpleasant experiences (like people who don't normally yell at me yelling angrily at me on a few occasions) and some unwelcome surprises. I've been plagued as of late by even more time banditry than normal which has made me feel a bit used by people. All of this has been in conjunction with some new niggling health issues that have ramped up my stress level on a daily basis.

I was tired and lamenting my recent fate (exercising self-pity is one of my talents) and I told my husband that I wanted some nice surprises in my life for a change. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm more than overdue on a karmic level for someone showing up at my doorstep with an over-sized check for a million dollars.

This morning, I was playing Guild Wars when a stranger gave me a bottle of orange dye in the game because my character's "name was funny". This means nothing to people outside of the game but I will say that there are two commodities that are generally valued in the game. One is gold and the other is dye. This was a very nice unsolicited gift and a complete surprise. It has never happened before.

This afternoon, I had two students today and the second one has been one of my bigger time thieves by asking me to correct and proofread a college paper outside of my lesson time with her. While I'm happy to help her, as of late, the amount of patching up her papers need has increased. It's gone from polishing up her English to needing wholesale content re-writes that can consume hours if I do it (which I didn't). Today, this student bought me a bag of American barbecue potato chips. This happens to be my favorite chip and is nearly impossible to find in Japan. The Japanese have something they call "barbecue" chips but they don't taste like those in the U.S. Again, this was another complete surprise.

A bottle of virtual dye and a bag of chips are no million dollar check but it's a start. I guess that it's not so much what the surprises are but the fact that they are pleasant ones.

Temporary Workers in Japan

I've always thought that temporary employees in Japan were probably getting the shaft salary-wise. I figured that, unlike salaried staff, they didn't get bonuses, paid vacation, or supplemented insurance. While all that is true, something one of my students told me over the weekend opened my eyes to another possibility. That is that (at least some) temps in Japan may be far better paid than the salaried staff they work with.

One of the ways companies find new staff who already possess required skills for a job is to find people via a temporary agency. This is something which has been pretty common for awhile in the United States but wasn't the case in Japan until the economy started to seriously slump. Prior to the economic downturn, companies could afford to hire people straight out of college and spend many years training them to a productive state and to pad their staff with incompetent staff or "window tribe" (madogiwa zoku) who had aged past the point of utility in the company. After the gravy train stopped coming so heavily laden and with great frequency, companies started to focus on hiring staff who were already skilled.

The way it usually works is the agency sends someone over and, sometimes, if the temporary person is good and wants to stay on at the same company, they will be hired full-time after 3 months to a year of evaluation. The lion's share (90%) of temporary office employees are female and that's another reason why I believed they were poorly paid.

The student who I discussed this with works in the accounting section so she is knowledgeable about the exact payment of all types of employees. She told me that they'd recently hired a temp. who was slow when using Excel and not really working out. She said that companies expect temps. to be competent and hard-working because they are so expensive. When I asked her how much they were paid, she said that the company paid the agency 2050 yen per hour for every hour a temporary employee they provided was working.

The rub is that 2050 an hour is what the agency gets, not the worker. I asked her how much of that she felt the worker got and she said about 1800 but my research on-line indicates it's closer to 1600 yen an hour. This puts a 40-hour a week temporary worker who works 22 days a month at around 280,000 yen.

This puts them on par with a "highly-paid" foreign teacher (better than some schools, worse than others) in terms of wages and rather substantially above a lot of the female salaried employees I used to work with. In fact, one of the female salespeople at my former office made around 200,00 yen a month because the company created a system of high quotas which kept her from collecting much in the way of commissions and kept her at a base salary most of the time.

Given this situation, I find myself wondering why more women don't aggressively pursue work through temporary agencies. It does explain, however, why several of my students choose to remain nonsalaried and continue to work as long-term temps.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

(Just After) Midnight Madness

Last night around 12:30, as I lay in bed on the very edge of sleep, my husband told me that the toilet was constantly running water through. Believe it or not, this is the first time in 18 years in the same apartment that this has happened. For the most part, our plumbing has been well-behaved.

Since my husband doesn't know anything about the water closet's waterworks, I went to see what was going on and indeed the water was merrily gushing through constantly. In the U.S., you deal with this problem by removing the tank lid and checking out what all the doo-dads (that's a technical term, don't throw it around or people will think you're pretentious) are up to. As is so often the case in Japan, it isn't quite as easy as all that.

Note that there is no handle to turn off the water supply attached to that pipe sprouting out the side. There's also no main water shut-off accessible to tenants of our apartment building.

Some Japanese toilets have a little pipe sprouting out of the back of the tank which resembles a water faucet only without handles. The water that is used to fill the tank spurts through the pipe into a basin with a small hole in the tank lid. This appears to be an ingenious way of squeezing in a place to wash your hands after using the facilities into an area where there is barely enough space for the toilet itself.

The problem with this feat of engineering is two-fold when you need to tinker with the tank. The lid is very heavy and unwieldy. It's got this pipe poking out of it so it's almost impossible to take it off and put it on the narrow free floor space around the toilet so you have to hold it up with your left hand while you inspect with your right.

What's worse, as I discovered last night, is that, when the water is running through and you take off the lid, the way in which this little "feature" works is for a pipe in the back that is directed straight up to feed into the tank lid and through the pipe. This causes water to literally gush up like a demented water fountain when the lid is taken off. If it went straight up (or to the right) and water fell back into the tank, that would be okay but it doesn't, it shoots up and sprays the back wall of the toilet constantly and rapidly floods the floor of this tiny window-less space.

So, just after midnight last night, I'm tired and in the toilet holding the tank lid in one hand and the ball in the tank with the other peering into the back of the tank to figure out how to fix it. I see that the problem is that one of those disks that I put in the back of the toilet to automatically clean it has dissolved into a pile of mush and is clogging the stopper in the back. I have to let go of the ball, grab the gob of goo and throw it out but that means letting go of the ball which causes the water to spurt through the pipe with the force of Niagra Falls and hit the lid in my left hand and run down the side of the tank onto the floor.

I really have no choice so I do this as fast as I can and rush back in and try to get the lid back in place. This is where the fun really starts. Because the lid is so heavy, I can't align the little pipe leading into it with the pipe gushing water one-handed. I have to let go of the ball and allow the water to gush up or out the side while holding the lid two-handed. If at least some of the water would fall into the tank, it'd fill up, the ball would float and it'd stop but the water spurts anywhere but into the back of the tank.

It takes a half dozen attempts to get this to work and by the time I'm finished, the water closet (which is actually smaller than a real closet) is flooded. The bathroom carpet is saturated, the back of the room has a shallow pond and the back wall has gotten a royal bath, my slippers are soaked, and the arms of my long-sleeved nightgown are wet (and freezing) and my arms are smudged with the silty stuff that has collected from nearly two decades of hard water running through the tank.

I will never look at that toilet design again and marvel at what a water and space-saving idea it was to put that spout on the back.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dealing With Shopping Bags

If there's one thing you get a lot of shopping in Japan, it's those plastic shopping bags with handles. You get them in all shapes, colors and sizes. To reduce waste, I highly recommend that you try to carry a cloth tote or a backpack and refuse the plastic bags.

Unfortunately, shop workers and clerks in Japan often deal with purchases in a trance-like state and will often hypnotically either pack your items in a bag or cram one into you shopping basket for self-bagging even when you tell them you don't want a bag. If you give back an unwanted bag, 50% of the time, they'll throw it out anyway because they've wrinkled it up and can't offer it to another customer so prompt refusal while making eye contact (to be sure they're paying attention) is important.

Sometimes, you actually do want these bags because they are good trash can liners for smaller bins or are useful in bagging up raw garbage. The larger of the commonly-distributed shopping bags fit 6 of my 7 separated bins well so I do keep some on hand. In summer, it is especially important to toss the liners on your trash cans frequently because they will attract roaches if there is any small amount of food or moisture in them.

At one point in time, my husband and I had bunched up and crammed so many of these things under our sink for later use that it took up about 1/4 of the available storage space. Since then, I've gotten much more efficient at firm refusal but also have a better way to store the ones I do have. Here is the tidy way to store plastic shopping bags:

Smooth the bag out and fold it in half.

Fold it over again then turn the bottom corner up to make a triangular shape at the bottom.

Fold the triangular fold up to make another triangular fold and keep folding in this fashion until you reach the handles at the top.

Tuck the handles down into the little pocket and it makes a tidy storage packet.

You can store these more easily in a drawer or a basket and it's easier to pull one out when they're in this format.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Time to File

Previously, I did a post which was an overview of the tax situation in Japan. At this time, there are a few specifics I think are worth mentioning about dealing with income tax back home. If you're a U.S. citizen residing in Japan, you should have gotten the above booklet in the mail if you've filed previously. If you haven't filed before, you'll need to contact the embassy for forms or file on-line. Those living abroad get an automatic extension so you'll have until June 15 to file but there's nothing to be gained from putting it off aside from feeding your impulse to procrastinate.

If you made less than $82,400 last year, you don't have to pay any taxes (but you still have to file) and can file most simply using the 2555-EZ Foreign Earned Income Exclusion form in conjunction with the 1040 form. I'm betting most people reading this blog, like myself, aren't making anywhere near that much while here. If you are, you can probably afford a tax accountant to take care of business for you.

In order to qualify as a foreign resident and be exempt from paying U.S. taxes, you don't have to have Japanese residence status. You just have to have been living outside the United States for 330 days during a 12-month period. You don't even have to have lived in only one country to qualify.

Your employer (or employers) should have provided you with an income statement for 2006 at the beginning of this year. They usually give you two or three copies of a small, thin form. These forms are used to file Japanese income taxes and you shouldn't have to ask for one but, if you didn't get one, you should start pestering someone about it. Even though it is all in Japanese, it's adequate proof of income for the I.R.S.

When you calculate your income in U.S. dollars, you are supposed to use the exchange rate that was active during the period in which you received the income. For 2006, the average yen to dollar exchange rate was 116.31 yen to the dollar according the U.S. Federal Reserve. I'm pretty sure this is a safe figure to use when making your calculations.

The income taxes you pay in Japan are listed on your income statement but they have nothing to do with your U.S. income taxes so you don't have to mention them anywhere or factor them into your calculations. You have to file Japanese income tax forms between February and March 15 at a local tax office. In most cases, you probably neither owe Japanese income taxes nor are owed a refund but some employers will chronically over-tax employees because it's more convenient for them to apply a blanket tax rate which errs on the side of caution. My former company, for instance, always charges 10%, which is far more than necessary.

If you've got savings back home, you'll have to include a 1099-INT form if you earned more than $1500 in interest last year. Your bank should automatically send you an interest statement each year if they are aware of your address in Japan. If you operate from a U.S. address as far as your U.S. bank is concerned but are filing as an overseas resident, you'll have to have your bank send a form off to you or get a family member to forward one to you.

My husband usually files our income tax forms each year but, given that I have a lot more free time than him these days, I'll be dealing with it this year. People usually make a big deal out of filing their income tax forms but it generally isn't all that tough if you follow the instructions given in the book. I guess it could be pretty complicated if you made a lot of money and wanted to claim a lot of business expenses to reduce your tax burden but, for most of us in Japan, it's unlikely to be all that complicated.

Disclaimer: I'm not a tax expert and am not responsible for any mistakes you might make or errors as a result of following my layman's advice! ;-)

Of Marriage and Money

A letter on Dr. Andrew MacAllister's advice blog (To Love Honor and Dismay), reminded me of a psychological survey I once read about marriage. The survey listed the top 10 things couples argued about. The number one source of difficulty among American couples was money followed by children.

In Japan, women traditionally handle the money. In some families, the women give their husbands an allowance and budget the rest for necessary expenses and savings. This situation has been diminishing as women have been making more money and working full-time and therefore starting to contribute to the household income on a more equal level. My husband and I both find when discussing this issue with students that married couples often disagree on purchases with women frequently annoyed or objecting to lavish expenditures on "toys" their husbands want to purchase. This is something that Japanese couples have in common with U.S. couples.

During my time interviewing students at my former job, a good many men told me that their wives had to do more work in the household roughly proportional to their income. That is, if a woman made the same amount of money as her husband, they'd split the housework 50-50. If she made 1/3 of his income, she had to do 2/3 of the housework. This struck me as a relatively transparent justification for not helping out around the house much.

In a situation not too far removed from the aforementioned one, some of my students have told me that they pay bills proportional to their relative incomes. If a woman makes 200,000 yen a month and her husband makes 400,000 yen, she'll pay 50% of whatever he does on necessary expenses. Among American couples, I often read that expenses are not split according to income disparities. They tend to cut bills down the middle and each pays half in couples where money is kept separate. I've often read that this is a source of resentment for the party who makes less.

Frankly, I've always found the notion that a married couple has separate bank accounts a discomfiting one. While I can understand the pragmatism of it based on high divorce rates, I find it disturbing that people will share their hearts, their bodies, and their genetic material but not their cash. If you don't trust someone enough to share your money, then you shouldn't marry him.

As the letter in Andrew's column demonstrates though, it's not always as simple as that. Sometimes people just have very different values when it comes to money and that ultimately makes a more business-like arrangement necessary to reduce the amount of difficulty a couple experiences about money. Of course, as the letter also makes clear, sometimes a strict handling doesn't solve anything, particularly when values, income and habits are vastly different.

When I quit my job a little over a year ago, I was concerned that my husband and I would start to experience difficulties because we'd have to be more careful with how we spent money. Prior to my quitting, we were generally in a good position to spend as much as we wanted so long as new cars, precious jewels, or luxury boating gear weren't on the agenda. Fortunately, our values regarding money are closely in alignment (neither of us are inclined to shop casually or spend lavishly) and we never argue over money even now that we have to be somewhat careful with expenditures. Since we also don't have any children, this means we have very little reason to argue. ;-)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Slow Cooker Chicken Paprikash (Low Carb)

I do an English lesson occasionally from an old textbook called "Speaking for Communication." The lesson basically has students look at a picture, describe it, read a paragraph about the picture, then answer some questions. One of the pictures is of an old stove with a bottle of soy sauce, a saucepan, and a coffeepot on it. To the right of the old stove is a slow cooker (or "Crock Pot" as it is known by many people). When my students describe this picture, they invariably look at the slow cooker and say, "rice cooker?" Such is an indication of the popularity of slow cookers in Japan.

I didn't even know you could get a slow cooker anywhere in Japan up until about 2 years ago. I found out that the Foreign Buyer's Club offers them through it's Deli store for a very reasonable price (about 5000 yen). I bought one for my boss for his birthday a few years back and shortly thereafter got one for myself.

The benefits of using a slow cooker, particularly for foreigners who don't often make an investment in an oven, are plentiful. You can set up the cooker before you leave for work and let it cook all day for some dishes. Also, there are a lot of dishes that would require an oven which can be made in a slow cooker. For instance, you can make bread, cakes and bar cookies in a slow cooker with the help of a greased coffee can. You can make a lot of the type of meat dishes that are usually baked in an oven. It's great in the winter for stews and an easy way to make a large enough portion to ensure leftovers for the following evening's meal. You can also use one in the summer and not heat up your apartment or slave over the stove. It's generally a slice, dice, and spice then forget it for several hours affair.

I've had a Crock Pot for a little over a year now and have been relatively incompetent in making what I'd consider "good" dishes with it. Last night, I experienced my first unbridled success. I researched slow cooker tips and discovered an important point that I'd overlooked before. A slow cooker does a much better job if you use it to cook meat that still is on the bone.

This presents a somewhat tricky situation for us in Japan compared to those in the U.S. In Japan, meat is usually sold boneless with skin. In the U.S., it's usually sold skinless with the bone. I'm guessing one could probably get cuts of chicken with bone (and without skin is best if you want to reduce fat) from local butchers if one was inclined to ask and to pay a bit more.

The most common form of chicken sold on the bone in Japanese markets is tiny little legs in 4 or 6 packs. We bought a pack of 4 of these and cooked them with some larger pieces to see how they fared. For the record, they did fine, but I'm guessing the overall cooking time can be reduced if you only use these tiny legs. Additionally, I would never cook such small pieces skinless.

My husband secured some adequately-sized leg-thigh combination pieces from a local market so I was ready to dive in with a modification of a recipe I found on Epicurious. The original recipe was fussy in its preparation and called for ingredients I didn't have. It also was in large enough quantities that the two of us could never eat it in two nights.

Slow Cooker Chicken Paprikash:
  • 4 large pieces of chicken with bone (skinless if desired)
  • 2 medium onions (thinly-sliced)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (peeled and cut in half)
  • 1-2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 can (approx. 3/4 cup) chicken soup stock
  • 2-3 chicken consomme or bouillon cubes
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 2-3 tbsp. cold water
  • 50 grams (about 2 tbsp.) sour cream
Scatter the sliced onions over the bottom of the slow cooker. Sprinkle with half the paprika (1 tbsp.) and stir with a wooden spoon. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces then rub them with the garlic halves. Layer the chicken pieces on top of the onions. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the remaining paprika and dot with butter. Place each of the 4 garlic halves on a piece of chicken. Pour the chicken stock over the chicken. Cook on "high" for 3-4 hours or cook on "low" for 5-6 hours until the chicken comes away from the bone easily. Remove the cooked chicken from the pot and cover it with the cooker's lid to keep it warm. With the temperature set to high, add 3 consomme (or bouillon) cubes and the cornstarch mixture and cook until thickened. Taste it to see if it is salty enough. If it seems a bit bland, toss in the third cube. Stir in the sour cream until it dissolves into the sauce and is hot. Serve the chicken with the sauce.

Note that the sauce preparation step might be a little slow in the cooker itself if you cooked on low or if it isn't all that hot on the high setting with the lid off. It may be faster to pour the sauce and onions into a saucepan for thickening.

Incidentally, chicken stock, which is necessary for this recipe, is not sold in most Japanese markets but you can buy it at Costco (99% fat-free McCormick brand) or from the Foreign Buyer's Club. You have to buy a case at a time but it's very handy for a variety of recipes (including homemade curry and the potato and onion soup I previously posted a recipe for). You can freeze portions of a can for later use if the recipe doesn't call for its entire contents. If you just can't be bothered to find canned stock, you can make it yourself by boiling chicken bones or parts. The easiest route though is to modify the recipe by using 3/4 cup of very hot water and 3 consomme or bouillon cubes for the stock and omit adding them later when you add the cornstarch.

My husband loved this. I liked it and thought the flavor was excellent, but I'm not a great fan of dark meat. The onions were incredible prepared this way. They were sweet and silky. I think the sauce would be great on potatoes and will probably try it with them when we have leftovers this evening. As it was, it went great with carrots.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What I'm Reading 3

This should actually be called "what I'm re-reading" because this is a book I read long ago but had since forgotten the content for the most part. And, to be perfectly honest, it should be "what I've just read" since I rarely post about a book until I've finished it.

Most people know the Monty Python troop mainly for their performances so it's easy to forget that they are all writers as well. They wrote their own sketches and movies. All of them have also gone on to write books about a variety of topics. I can't say that I've ever been especially drawn to most of their works beyond the T.V. series and movies (with a few exceptions) but my husband picked up Hemingway's Chair by Michael Palin a very long time ago.

When I initially read it, I thought it was quite good and now I like it even more. It's a novel about a postal worker who is a passionate fan of Hemingway. For those who possess as little fondness for Hemingway as me, I'm happy to say that the book has little to do with him and much more to do with the unremarkable lives of people in a quiet little town that can quickly become quite remarkable. It's also about finding depth under the surface of fussy little people.

Since this is Michael Palin, it's all served up with warm and subtle humor and a good deal of charm. If you've ever seen any of his travel series (which I highly recommend) or read the companion books for them, you'll have witnessed the same tone in which the story is delivered. One of the ways in which his humor works is offering up an situation which you've read in several dozen other books and pairing it with an unexpected reaction. For instance, as the main character's date prepares to meet him, she thinks about a former date:

"The other evening they'd been together down by the beach huts and he'd run his fingers very gently over her face, paying special attention to her lips. Elaine was curious to know where he'd learnt this, but didn't like to ask. She had concluded that it must have been from a magazine, or one of his books. She hadn't liked it much, as the tips of his fingers smelt of postal adhesive."

Hemingway's Chair is a light read but very well-written. You'll come away with an appreciation for how good Palin is with words and a feeling that he's a very intelligent person. It'd be an excellent book to take along on a long train or airplane ride. If you're in Japan, you can pick it up from Amazon Japan here.

Note that my copy has a different cover than the current printing. I'm guessing this is because the early copy had a cut-out on the post box on the cover (which allows Palin's eyes to show through from his picture on the inside page) and such covers are more expensive to produce than a normal cover.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Waiting for the Celestial Pig

She's Uma (my sister, Wandering Carl). I'm John (Takarific Carl). These characters dance exactly like their compatriots in "Pulp Fiction". Note our pet boar in the lower left.

Yesterday was the Spring Festival in the Chinese New Year celebration. The on-line role-playing game I play, Guild Wars, has been featuring a 3-day series of special playing opportunities for the holiday culminating in a special Sunday festival with virtual gifts of rice wine, bean cakes, fireworks, blue soft drinks, party hats, and a tiny little pet boar in honor of the year of the boar.

There's the celestial pig making the rounds of the 5 chefs.

In the game, we have to gather together a series of esoteric ingredients from game areas and turn them over to chefs at the appointed time so they may prepare five dishes to garner the appreciation of the celestial boar. The boar is a ghostly golden pig who gives us a holiday mask (shown above on the screen shot), 16 red bags of goodies, and the tiny pet boar. If we fail to offer all the ingredients, he turns us all into boars and offers fewer gifts. He runs around the compound for awhile then disappears back from whence he came. This is all much more fun to witness and be a part of than to read about, trust me.

The truth is that I wasn't even aware of the Chinese New Year celebration and when it occurred until this year because I don't know anyone of Chinese descent who observes it as a holiday and it's not celebrated in Japan (at least not outside of districts like the "Chinatown" area of Yokohama and I've never been there). It strikes me that it's a good thing that cross-cultural awareness gets woven into a game in the way that it has by this celebration.

The section of the game where it all takes place is a mish-mash of Asian cultural elements. There are parts that appear Japanese and others that appear Chinese (though there's definitely more Chinese culture than Japanese). I wonder if those who are from Asian cultures would be pleased to see their cultural elements portrayed in this fashion or if they'd be appalled at the way it's all dashed together in a mixed salad of Asian elements.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Time Bandits

There's an episode of the Simpsons where Bart, under the influence of a test medication for ADD which makes him hyper-efficient, calls his sister Lisa a "time burglar" for wasting his time in snippets by talking to him about things of little importance.

As of late, I've had the distinct feeling that my students are time bandits as well. As it is, I give up my free time to assist students in ways in which I'm not strictly required to do so. I do research on the internet for them and recommend sites or print out helpful information. I correct their homework outside of the lesson time when I'm not even required to give them homework at all but I do it because I believe it helps them improve more rapidly. For one student, I read her assignment information to help her do college courses and it can take hours of extra time.

These things aren't things that I mind so much but, recently, they've been stealing my time in annoying ways. One of them is frequent reschedules which require back and forth e-mail communication. Another is absences which require me to communicate each time with the referral agency. The biggest and most irritating is the last minute whipping out of some work document for urgent correction as the lesson ends or the questions that come at the end of the hour which are hard to rebuff or cut off. I have tried to end lessons 2-3 minutes before the precise end of the time but, invariably, they manage to string things out longer regardless.

The attempts to extend the lesson beyond the hour are the ones that bother me the most as I think it shows little respect for the value of my time. It also annoys me more because, if I tried to pull the reverse situation and cut lessons short by 5-10 minutes, the students would surely complain that they are being cheated. Only one of my 9 or so students seems to respect my time enough to hustle out when the hour is up. The rest seem to always be searching for a way to get an extra long ride on the English train.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Replacing the Mac Mini's Hard Drive

The box Other World Computing sent my new drive in. The sticker that says you should reject the parcel if the seal is broken is interesting.

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Mac Mini's internal hard disk had failed. Rather than pay for repair, I opted to do it myself. I've done these types of repairs in the past on other Macs though they were all bigger than the Mini. In the past, I've replaced the hard disk on a PowerPC 6300 and the CD-ROM drive on an orange gumdrop-shaped iMac. Neither one really taxed my prowess but I do have a great knack for breaking off plastic tabs on the cases any time I open up a computer for upgrade or repair.

The drive I purchased was $89. It was somewhat more expensive than a precise duplicate of my former drive (a 4500 rpm, 80 GB Toshiba made for Apple). It's slightly faster at 5400 rpm and somewhat bigger at 100 GB. The folks at Other World Computing are absolute peaches and I'd highly recommend them if you're in need of upgrades or replacement parts. I e-mailed them to verify the compatibility of the drive I wanted to order and their response was fast and friendly. I ordered very late Tuesday night. The drive arrived around 5:30 on Friday via Fed Ex. Shipping was a reasonable $26.

The hard disk was very well-packed and arrived safely.

The drive itself is safely tucked into an anti-static packet. It rather looks like dinner for astronauts. You know, the type where they rip off the end and suck out the contents in the gravity-less environment?

Getting the case open was supposed to be the hard part. It was actually quite easy and I didn't even break any of the tabs. I was lulled into a false sense of security.

Anyway, OWC includes a section on their web site which has instructional videos for performing a wide variety of tasks including installing a hard drive and RAM on a mini. If you watch the video, you can pretty much see exactly what I did.

My installation went almost precisely like the one you see there except for the part where the competent fellow performing the tasks smoothly removes the screws and moves on to the next task. In my case, you can add about 5-10 minutes of extreme frustration for each screw as I attempted to remove screws held in by the approximate gravitational force of a collapsed star. The gentlemen narrating the instructional video mentions that he had already taken that particular Mini apart before. I'm pretty sure that was because the instructional video would have taken an hour if he'd have had to take the screws out before they were pre-loosened.

This also might explain why Apple's tech people have to charge so much. They probably are sitting in the back somewhere swearing and attempting to get enough torque on their screwdrivers to remove the screws necessary to repair the computers they work with. I'm guessing they also probably need several days off to regrow the skin on the tips of their fingers and get workmen's compensation during the healing process. I'm guessing they also have to pay for wholesale replacements when they've totally stripped the head off of most of the screws and have to rip the plastic frame apart to get at the innards of the computer.

Once I finally got the screws out and the drive in, I then had the chance to fight with getting the screws on the fan back in. All the itty-bitty other incredibly short screws just refused to go into their crevices and fell into the guts of the computer instead. The fan screws simply refused to go back in at all. With what little skin I had left, I pushed them in as far as possible and gave up. It took an hour and a half to do and at least an hour and 15 minutes of that was dealing with the screws. I do not exaggerate.

The moment of truth was at hand. I booted up the Mini and loaded the disk utility to erase the drive and it was there for erasing. Hurrah! I did it right and didn't hose my computer. I formatted the disk and prepared to install OS X.

Then, I hit an impasse. See the big red circles with exclamation points in the screenshot above? Those are OS X telling me I can't install the OS on my new hard drive or boot from it. Does it tell me why? No, of course not! What fun would that be!

So, I feel my blood pressure climb and go back to the disk utility and format the drive again. It won't work. I format it using every option available (except UNIX) including MS-DOS format. I partition it a few times in case 100 GB is too big for some reason. I search the internet for advice and find no joy. I erase again and again. Still no happiness.

Finally, I decide to restart. When I restart, the drive has magically become a bootable installable option. At the risk of further angrying up the blood of the Mac faithful out there, I have to sarcastically thank Apple for not telling me that it may be necessary to restart after formatting in order to make the drive bootable.

God, I miss OS 9.

Goodbye Magic English Pill Woman

Those who have served (or are serving) their time in an English conversation school are familiar with having a student (or students) who everyone dreads teaching. They look at their schedule and groan when they notice they have this particular person and are glad when other teachers get stuck with those students.

Back in my days at Ikebukuro Nova, we had several of these students because it was such a big school. One of them was "the seaweed salesman" who always smelled funny, had bad breath and had a lot of trouble stammering out anything. Students with odor issues were always particularly unwelcome because we taught in small cubicles with almost no air circulation.

The most infamous student is one I'll refer to as Mr. M. From all appearances, he looked to be a tired-looking businessman in his middle to late 40's. He always wore a suit and tie but he actually did not work. In fact, he tended to spend all day at the school. At that time, Nova allowed anyone who bought tickets for the conversation lounge to hang out all day there for the price of one 2000-yen ticket. Mr. M. would take one lesson and camp out in the conversation lounge for the remainder of the day.

Mr. M. had some issues. One was that he would unpredictably get angry or annoyed by something a teacher asked or did. This tended to happen as time went by and he attended more often and grew bored with the routine and patterns the lessons followed. He's simply refuse to answer the warm-up questions at the start of lessons after awhile. What was more difficult though was the fact that he seemed to have petit mal seizures or drift into some sort of fugue state in the middle of lessons. His head would drop (his eyes still open) and he'd just be out like a light for seconds to nearly a minute of time.

I'm pretty sure Mr. M. had some psychological issues or possibly some neurological issues. I felt sorry for him but that didn't make teaching him any more enjoyable. It just mitigated the frustration you'd feel about having to deal with him to some extent. Mr. M. was representative of students with personality issues that made teaching them uncomfortable or tiring.

On several occasions, I've posted about a student who has been particularly difficult to teach and she reminded me of all those students we all didn't want to see in our schedules back in my conversation school days. At Nova, fortunately, the impact of dealing with such students was blunted by the fact that you didn't have to teach them all the time as they tended to get shuffled around amongst all the teachers and the fact that other students were present in the lessons most of the time and this blunted their acting on their impulses and allowed you to find a way to work the lesson with the other students.

In my case, as a private teacher teaching one-on-one lessons, there was not going to be any relief from "magic English pill" woman. After struggling to find a lesson plan that was within her skill level, I gave up and decided to just do the best I could to chat with her and forget about actually teaching her.

The last lesson I had with her was around the middle of December and she was really pleased at the end of it because she felt we'd had a really good "conversation". What we had actually done was pass the time with me filling in the huge gaps in her English and letting her sprinkle in Japanese. I felt dirty but she couldn't have been happier.

Since that lesson, she has either been absent or cancelled her lessons. This means she has been occupying a time slot in my schedule and I've been wasting time preparing for lessons she doesn't show up for. Since I only get paid for absences or late cancellations, I haven't been paid for about 50% of this wasted time and effort. What's more, I have to notify the referral agency when she does these things. If I forget or don't bother, they won't pay me so it's not like I don't have to do any work when she doesn't show.

After nearly two months of this, I finally gave in to an impulse I should have acted on after her first lesson and asked the referral agency to find her another teacher. I hesitated to do this early on for a variety of reasons. The primary one was that rejecting her seemed pretty cruel. After all, she couldn't help her spastic nature.

My motives weren't entirely altruistic though. I also didn't want the agency to feel I was going to make pat judgements of students and reject them for fear that they'd refer fewer students to me in the future. Frankly, I also felt this was a personal challenge for me to be more flexible in my approach to teaching. I wanted to believe that I could find a way to adapt to her. In the end, I believe I did though I didn't necessarily enjoy it or respect myself for what felt like "giving up" in the end.

With all her absences (due to helping her son get into school in the U.S.), I could finally tell the referral agency I didn't want to teach her anymore because she was wasting my time. It was a reason that didn't reflect poorly on me nor would it hurt her feelings if she's told the truth.

10 (More) Tips for Livng in Small Spaces

In the previous post, I listed 20 tips for living in small spaces. That particular post had been building for about a month as I added ideas into it as I went along. I guess I didn't wait long enough though because there are more.

I realize my shelf is crooked but I don't care. :-)

1. Some of the bathrooms in Japan are "unit baths" which include a shower, bathtub and toilet in the same room. Older style bathrooms may be separated into a "water closet" (a small room with just a toilet) and another room with a shower and a Japanese bath (usually a deep, square tub). If you have a water closet, or any narrow closet-like space which has no or insufficient built-in shelving, you can buy a tension bar shelf to give you a place to store medium to light-weight items such as facial tissues, extra toilet paper, and hygiene products. If you get it good and tight, you may even be able to store heavier items. I have a gallon-size container of "Simple Green" cleaning fluid on mine and the bar hasn't fallen.

2. Use the top of your refrigerator wisely and purposefully. First of all, don't make the top of your fridge extra long-term storage space for that crock pot you use once a month or so. Nothing is worse than seeing a bunch of appliances or junk on top of a refrigerator. Things get dusty and look a mess. It just screams, "I don't have enough space and I'm shoving stuff there". If you want to use that space, use it for ready access to things you use all the time and organize it well. That means leave some open space there so you can slide things in and out without difficulty or knocking things down or off. Nothing should be on top of your fridge that doesn't get used or consumed on a regular basis.

I realize this is an accident waiting to happen in a big earthquake but I figure I'll have bigger issues if there's one big enough to topple my coffee makers.

3. Use free-standing shelves to elevate items on large, clear surfaces to double your capacity without using up more counter space (see picture above). Use metal shelves for relatively heavier items, plastic will suffice for lighter items. If you've got one of those little dorm-size refrigerators that foreigners often start off with in Japanese apartments, you're a good candidate for interlocking stacking shelves (like the metal one on my fridge above). You can stack them up and create levels of shelving if you like, putting commonly-used kitchen items on them. To provide stability, put heavier items on the lowest shelf. It's also better not to stack higher than two shelves if you use the cheap, plastic ones that you can get at hundred yen shops.

3. Decant food from its original packaging into containers to present a unified look for your food storage and store more efficiently. Using the same style containers actually makes a space seem longer because it provides a uniform look across the available space. The eye is drawn along the space rather than overwhelmed by clutter. Also, there's nothing uglier and more unwieldy than a collection of various bags and containers. They are much harder to store because of their varying sizes and shapes. You tend to find yourself struggling to dig bags of flour or bread crumbs from a jumbled pile in limited storage space. Decant everything which comes in a paper or plastic sack (coffee, sugar, etc.) or that comes in a large box (teabags) into containers (tall is better) . Store any excess that won't fit into your container out of sight in its original bag and put your containers in a place close to your food preparation area.

Computer accessories and cables that I use on occasion and printer supplies are in baskets in the narrow space under my desk. They're where I need them without being in the way or taking up valuable shelf space or desk space.

4. Use baskets to organize convenient storage in small and/or narrow areas. Generally, I think baskets are a bad idea but that's only if they're used to organize large spaces. For narrow spaces, they can function essentially as drawers. You slide them out and get what you need and slide them back in. If you pick the right size, you can push them back just far enough that they are out of view except at extreme angles but are still in easy grasping range.

5. Use clip lights instead of lamps for dark areas, especially for reading or detailed work. Lamps are good for decor but, in very small places, it's often the case that surface areas are at a premium. You can get a lot of attractive or unobtrusive clip lights from places like Amazon and they cost no more than a conventional light.

6. Use rolling furniture in necessary large dead spaces. As a previous tip, I mentioned using dead space for storage. This works well for small, narrow, or out of the way dead space but sometimes you are forced to accept large dead spaces. In my case, the cabinets under my stove need clearance to open so I can't put a permanent piece of furniture in front of them but I desperately need more storage in my kitchen. To get around this, I bought a rolling shelf that I leave in place most of the time and only roll out to take items out of the cabinet (I organize my cabinet so items stored in there are accessed relatively infrequently). It provides a great deal of storage space both for long-term items and for things I need to access immediately.

I bet you wouldn't have noticed that frying pan was there if it weren't for the red box.

7. Hang up kitchen items if you can but only if it is relatively unobtrusive and opaque. You often see modern kitchens with an island in the center and a huge collection of pans hanging over them. This might work in a bigger place but hanging stuff out in the middle isn't so great when you're in a tiny place. In fact, I'd strongly recommend avoiding hanging things if it creates too great a bulge or visual focal point. That doesn't mean you can't find some reasonably good nooks and crannies to hang things in which will help with your storage issues. I hang umbrellas by the door in front of the washing machine, and a frying pan on a shelf by the stove. You can also hang more dishes in your cupboards using hooks inside if your shelves aren't custom sized for dishes.

8. To make a small space feel bigger and like you have room to breath, try to keep much of your flat surface areas clear. Give the items you place on surfaces breathing room around them so the atmosphere isn't "cramped" feeling. This goes for all types of items from decorative objects to electronic items. Don't clear off all spaces though or it'll look barren. Experiment with the placement of objects to find a balance.

9. Try to get double duty out of decorative objects. The cat figure above is a lamp. The other item is a scented oil burner.

10. And, as a final overall tip... Don't try to accomplish everything at once. It's best to pick one area at a time and analyze it for efficiency. Perfect that space then move on to another at a comfortable pace. Generally speaking, you'll want to take advantage of "dead" (inaccessible spaces or necessary blocked areas) and inefficiently utilized storage areas while clearing surface areas. Analyze your shelving and how it is positioned and whether or not it suits the items you store. Sometimes a really narrow space (created by putting two shelves close together) is better than a wide one. Look at your heavily cluttered areas and work out what needs to be done to de-clutter them. Make sure everything has a convenient storage place.

If anyone tries these tips and has some "before" and/or "after" pictures, I'd love to see them. I'd also like to hear any other tips anyone has for living in small spaces.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

20 Tips for Living in Small Spaces

Living in Japan for most of us almost certainly means living in small spaces. Even if you live in a relatively large place, you still probably have small rooms. When we first arrived, with little furniture and relatively few items, space seemed relatively plentiful. As time went by and our possessions and amount of furniture grew, things grew increasingly cramped and chaotic. We also graduated from a double bed to a queen size after about 4 years and that consumed the better part of our 6-mat (107 sq. feet) bedroom.

Three or four years ago, I decided I'd pretty much had it with a lot of problems I was having because of the space and started doing some major overhauling. There were a few things I learned in trying to make living in a small space better. Those of you who have slogged your way through my apartment tour will already have heard a bit of this information sprinkled throughout it as part of my picture descriptions.

This picture makes that curtain look much more see-through than it actually is. The flash really illuminates the closet. It's actually nearly so dark that you can hardly see through. My computer equipment and storage boxes for electronics goods are hidden back there. I can pull aside the curtain to access things as needed. This is my re-purposed closet. Below is what it's like inside without the curtain.

1. Spaces don't have to be used for their intended purpose. For example, just because you have a closet somewhere, it doesn't mean you have to use it as a closet. I took the doors off mine and made it into an extension of my desk. The same goes for furnishings or other storage areas. Re-purpose spaces to suit your needs rather than try and shoehorn things into them. Take an especially good look at doors that swing out and how they impede your ability to use space efficiently. Remove cabinet or closet doors and store them in a clean, safe area (and keep the screws in a Ziploc bag in a place where you won't lose track of them) so you can re-attach them when you leave.

2. Digitize where possible. Rather than saving up stacks of those little paper photo booklets full of printed pictures that you get from photo developers, only keep digital copies on at least two forms or copies of back-up media. The pictures you enjoy flipping through now will only add to your clutter as time goes by. The same goes for video. At the very least, get both a digital and hard copy so you can toss the hard copy later if you'd like.

3. Comb through your possessions at regular intervals and toss out or give away anything you haven't used in over a year unless it serves a specific purpose which is fairly important to you. This was a hard one for me to do because I grew up poor and the idea of "wasting" anything that was even modestly serviceable was anathema to my family but I did it. Try not to succumb to the "this might be useful" later type of thinking. If you haven't used it in over a year, there's little chance you'll use it in the future.

4. If you've got 2 or more of something, consider if you really only need one and toss out the inferior one. Last time I visited home (quite some time ago), my mother got angry with me for throwing out a rusty spatula claiming it could be sanded and used. Of course, she had several other spatulas and had no plans to clean that one up but she certainly wasn't going to throw it out as long as a scrap of use could be wrung out of it. While I admire the "mend rather than end" attitude, that doesn't apply to items you have duplicates (or more) of.

5. Position everything such that it's easy to get at and put away. This will reduce clutter greatly by making it less of a chore to move things around. If you constantly find yourself leaving things where they "don't belong" then they deserve a more convenient permanent storage area.

The types of hooks that you can use on wood trim in Japanese apartments sometimes come with a plastic back which you can remove if your trim is thicker.

6. Hooks are your friends in Japanese apartments, especially if you have little closet space. There is wood trim around the edges of the walls in most Japanese places and non-damaging hooks are sold on which you can place clothes, bags, etc. While it's not necessarily pretty, it is highly functional and convenient. Mainly, this is good for the bedroom. If you have guests and don't like the look of them, you can remove them easily on a temporary basis. These hooks are sold at most 100 yen shops and supermarkets.

7. Stay away from appliances you don't really need. One of the things my husband and I bought in Japan was a rice cooker. It ended up being the case that, while the rice cooker cooked rice well, we didn't eat rice all that often and we didn't eat it in large quantities. We are better off buying packets of pre-made rice on the infrequent occasions when we have it. Similarly, a lot of people are enticed by the handy hot water pots you can squirt near-boiling water out of for quick tea, ramen, or soup. Unless you need the service of these items more than a few times a week, you could probably live without them and free up valuable space. Even though I drink tea nearly every day, I just microwave the water to boiling.

8. Dishes seem to breed and multiply in Japan. You get them free from some shops and restaurants (Mister Donut seems to give them away on occasion). They are attached to some food items. People give you them as gifts and we pick them up frequently as souvenirs. They're often cute and or have funny sayings. Try not to go nuts with dishes and force yourself to toss out the ones you think are cute but go unused for other reasons (like they're too small, big, or hard to handle).

This area is virtually a dark hole without my camera's flash. Since these recyclables are so light, they don't crush or hinder the washing machine's water hose in any way.

9. Locate dead space and find a good use for it. "Dead" space commonly includes necessary space behind and beneath furniture (but not on top - see next item). For instance, there is a gap between my washing machine and the wall which is necessary because of the drainage tube that goes into the huge plastic platform the washer sits on. I use that space to store recyclable Styrofoam trays and egg cartons in plastic shopping bags. Since I need 6 areas to separate recyclable trash and this stuff is light, it's a good place to keep it. It's also a bonus that it is impossible to see from almost any angle (because it's dark, narrow and behind a big appliance) so visitors can't see what is stored there. I also use the space under my bed to store our disassembled fan in winter. Be careful though to store purposefully and not cram a bunch of stuff in dead spaces just to get it out of the way for awhile.

Yes, I know the last one doesn't match but the shop that sold the first two went out of business. We rescued the last one from the trash collector.

10. Buy tall furniture rather than low and wide furniture. This gives you storage without taking up valuable floor space. Position tall shelves or cabinets in places where they won't topple if there's a big earthquake or anchor them so they won't fall. Anchoring techniques include tension bars that fill the gap between the top of a shelf and the ceiling or putting carpet squares at the front of the item so that it leans back slightly. The carpet square technique uses the furniture's own weight to keep it anchored against the wall. It'll take a lot more force to topple over furniture set up like this. Try to resist the temptation to stack things on top of shelves. It just looks cluttered and makes your space feel cramped. If you must stack things on top, use structural support (e.g, bookends or frames) for it and make it look organized.

I put paper in the front of these clear plastic CD storage bins so there wouldn't be a jumble of various CD covers showing through.

11. Try to buy shelves with doors to cover up all-purpose storage areas. This provides a smooth front for clutter and allows you to organize. Open storage is best for items that you have a lot of the same type of thing such as books, DVDs, and collectibles that follow a theme. If you've got clear storage bins and it looks chaotic, cover the front with same-colored paper inserts.

Using 4 small plastic drawers, I can use almost every inch of this cabinet and get at anything stored in there without trouble. The laminater just fits on top and spare packing tape nicely fits on the side.

12. Divide large blocks of storage space with smaller storage units. There are tons of plastic drawers and storage bins of all sizes for sale in shops in Japan. Try to make smaller divisions for various categories of items (stationary items, tools, computer supplies, etc.). You can take advantage of more of the space you have by sub-dividing it using organizational items. Opt for drawers over bins so you can just pull them open to get at things. With bins, you have to take the top off so stacking them makes it hard to retrieve or put away things quickly.

A student gave me this mailbox about 12 years ago as a gift. I attached it to the side of my refrigerator which is next to a table (where I can open mail) that has a trashcan under so I can throw away the garbage right away.

13. When you bring in the mail, open it up next to an area with a trash can and remove all the envelopes and toss out all the junk right away. Create a storage area for holding bills or other items that you need to deal with later. Keep a file box for important documents and file them just after opening the mail. If you can't deal with the 3 minutes of fussiness this involves when you carry the mail in, don't open it until you're ready to properly deal with it.

My handy-dandy filing system keeps all the important stuff in one place so I don't have to go anywhere else when it's time to go to the local government office, immigration, or dig out a receipt to prove to the Japanese police that I didn't steal any of my possessions.

14. Consider storing clothes in cabinets with doors rather than drawers. It's a lot easier to see things, stores more, and you can get much taller cabinets than dressers.

Yes, it could be tidier but I can find anything I want in there even in this state.

15. Clear the tops of surfaces and decorate. Don't scatter your collected tidbits on open surfaces. Consider how the items fit in the space and how they coordinate with one another. If you have a lot of mismatched knick-knacks or souvenirs and you like all of them, divide them into style or color sets and rotate them rather than scatter them about all at once. Also, try to go for bigger rather than smaller pieces both for pictures and for decorative objects. Lots of tiny things in a small space make it feel small and cluttered. I'm not the greatest decorator by far but I do try and match things up in areas which are visual focal points. Small spaces tolerate less fussiness than larger spaces. Additionally, if you want to avoid a college dorm look, try to frame any pictures or posters that you use. Frames are another thing you can get at 100 yen shops.

16. Keep an eye on your canned and dry foods (e.g., pasta). Don't accumulate large amounts of food you don't eat. It also helps to write the date with a permanent marker on food that can be in long-term storage. If there's something that you've had around for over 6 months and haven't eaten, either eat it in the next week (put it on the counter or table to remind you to eat it) or throw it out. Remember that you can't throw away cans full of food in Japan. You have to empty the food out of it, remove the label, wash the can, and recycle it. It also helps to only buy specialty food that you plan to incorporate into your immediate menu when you shop. Don't buy something unusual because it's cheap and will last awhile. Buy it because it's cheap and you're going to have it this weekend or in a few days.

17. If you live with other people, work with their needs, not against them. One of the lessons I learned after many years of fighting my husband's tendency to toss things everywhere is that you can't always have everything "just so" unless you're prepared to be the one who is going to do the work to keep it that way. My husband likes to come home from work and empty his pockets into a basket. If I don't give him a proper place, he'll start leaving things in other places which suit him. Additionally, if I make it hard for him to put things away, he's far more likely to toss them on the floor or sofa and forget about them. It's his apartment, too, so he has the right to have things in easy reach even when I think things would look cleaner or tidier in another way. If you live with someone and they constantly do something untidy or fail to put things away, you're probably fighting an uphill battle to get them to do it your way and are better off adjusting the way things are arranged to make it easier for them. This is a far bigger issue in small places because we have less completely private space.

18. Try to overlap functionality, particularly for electronic items. This can be tricky because it may require technical prowess. I can't say that I've completely gone this route but I will be purchasing with an eye toward it in the future. If you can share displays, keyboards, and mice on multiple machines with a KVM switch, do it. If you can attach one set of speakers to all the devices (computer, T.V., DVD player, etc.) that you use audio and video with, do it. Ironically, one of the things which is relatively important in bigger places, going wireless, is less important in smaller places since you don't really have all that far to string wires around. It'd still be easier but it's not integral. However, if you have to snake wires, try to do it under carpets ad behind furniture where possible.

19. Unless you eat at a table or use one for projects everyday, consider taking advantage of the wide variety of folding tables you can buy in Japan. Even if you end up leaving the table up most of the time, having the option to tuck it away can sometimes be useful. Also, don't rely on a table which isn't well-positioned for a work space. Try to clear surfaces as workspaces where you really need them (in the kitchen and at your desk). If you've got one of those incredibly dinky little kitchenettes, do the best you can not to put anything on the limited counter space you have so you can prepare food on it.

Image lifted from Dinos who sell these fine items.

If the space you have is next to your sink, buy an in-sink or elevated dish drainer (shown above). You can dry and put away large items that won't fit in the smaller racks. If your space is a ridged area that is a part of the sink, consider getting a large, plastic cutting board to cover it so you can work on it. Such cutting boards, again, are frequently available at 100 yen shops.

20. Choose the right kind of furniture. Just because you're in Japan, it doesn't mean you have to sit under a low table or sit on the floor on pillows. Early on, my husband and I wasted money on furnishings that didn't suit us. Eventually, we ended up trying to cram these pieces in around western pieces we found more comfortable making our small space burst at the seams with furniture. Since we were reluctant to toss out perfectly good items even if we didn't like them or use them, they tended to just take up space. Before you buy a bunch of low or floor-level furniture to get into the spirit of things, think about whether or not that's how you want to relax, eat, etc. day-in and day-out. Many Japanese people don't use traditional furnishings in modern apartments. While you can't pick up your furnishings on street corner trash piles like you used to, you can pick up some nice items cheaply at second-hand shops.

The best way to tell how well you've organized your space is by seeing how comfortable you feel in it when you're not occupied with T.V. or the computer or whatever. If you feel a sense of peace and comfort, you've probably got it set up pretty well to suit your needs.