Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Monkey Mania!

Back in August we were lucky to hang out with these guys at the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali.

This guy was by far our favorite though. Check out his advanced tool usage:

The other day JL and his sister bear went to the monkey onsen in Nagano. They made friends with these guys:

and this little cutie:

and watched this intimate parent/child interaction for a while:

Last night we had tons of fun playing cards with a fellow MN couple who is also teaching in Japan. What fun to be able to talk about Minneapolis and bikes and community organizing again. Thanks for coming J & A!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

First of all, thanks to everyone who has sent us holiday cards. The wall o' love is really shaping up nicely and we're feeling quite loved.

We made a lot of Christmas cookies the other day:

Our Christmas appetizer was inadvertently color appropriate:

We woke up Christmas morning, opened the shoji screens and found this:

The first snow of the season and it came right in time for a white Christmas!

John's sister brought us a lot of treats from home including all these books. We should be pretty set for winter reading now...

On Christmas night we had a party complete with white elephant gift exchange a Wii bowling tournament. Then we sang karaoke until 4am.

Christmas in Japan was pretty different from Christmas at home, but it sure was fun.

We'll leave you with this (in front of the music box museum in our town right now):

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas without Christians

We're realizing this is the first time we'll spend Christmas in a non-Christian country. They're all gearing up for New Year's here. Christmas is like a fun little precursor for Japanese people. You should have seen the kids' faces when I told them that Christmas was a bigger deal than New Year's in the US! So far we've gathered that Japanese people eat chicken (ie KFC's bucket o' fried chicken), sometimes sushi and always cake on Christmas. John got asked to his teachers' Christmas party, on Christmas. See, how it's just not quite the same?

Oh sure they're playing Christmas music at the grocery store and all, but they're mostly weird muzak versions of the old favorites. Yesterday at 7-11 I heard an instrumental version of Mariah Carey's All I want for Christmas.

I actually think it might be more of a bummer to be away from your family in countries that do celebrate Christmas because everything is closed and everyone's with their families. Here everything will be open and everyone going about their business while it's a special day for us. For instance, it was lovely to see the Christmas decorations go up in Madrid but it made me even sadder that I was spending my first big holiday away from my family. Another year I was in Mendoza, Argentina. Restaurants and stores were all closed and I just had to kind of wander around the hot, empty town knowing that everyone was enjoying big meals with their families.

We're feeling super excited about Christmas this year though because John's sister is coming!! She'll be the best present ever. But we're still missing the rest of you this holiday season. Drink some eggnog and eat some cookies for us, yes?!

We got this in our mailbox last week - a paper Shinto talisman to keep the demon gods at bay. Obviously we put it right up by our door where we're supposed to. We don't want to take any chances :)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Silk Museum

We visited a silk museum last week after the mochi making. Apparently that area of Japan was part of the silk road up until a few generations ago. Every family kept silk worms in their attic and sold them to cooperatives that exported them. We even met a woman who said her friend's parents used to have them upstairs and she could hear them munching on leaves. Here are some things we learned about silk worms:

1) They only eat the leaves of mulberry bushes.
2) 1 cocoon can have as much as 1 kilometer of silk.
3) They eat silkworms in China and Korea.
4) Silkworms are completed domesticated and have been crossbred so many times that they are blind and helpless in nature-just little silk making machines, they are.

There were lots of displays like this of the silk worms

and their cocoons and silk.

Probably the coolest part though was all of the dyed silk.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Teaching Junior High

For a blog about a couple who teaches in Japan we sure haven't written much about teaching yet...

Last year at this time we were maybe the busiest we've ever been. We had about 4 jobs between us, JL was finishing school and we were applying like mad for jobs in Japan. I remember at the time thinking that there was no way I was going to like teaching English to Japanese tweens. I figured I liked teaching in general, I knew I liked living abroad and it was a good opportunity to experience Japanese culture and save some money.

Luckily and surprisingly, we REALLY like Japanese junior high kids. They're awesome. They're a hoot. They're pretty serious about schoolwork and are well-behaved (at least at my school). Even when they're not, they're usually pretty smart at English or are at least refreshingly thinking for themselves. As a bonus, they treat us like celebrities. I mean, John got voted Teacher of the Year at a school he's only at 2/3 of the time. Some classes only see him once a month. In some of his classes they line up as they leave and personally thank him for the class. When we were in Kyoto we found we missed kids in the 12-16 years bracket and struck up random conversations with junior high school groups we saw at temples.

Don't get me wrong - the Japanese system of teaching English is horrible. Rote memorization, mindless repetition and writing sentences over and over are all standard activities. Most of my teachers are more innovative and open to communicative activities (the purported reason that we're here). Still, the students have tests to take and high schools to get into. Speaking is not included on high school entrance exams, which doesn't help.

From what we've heard and read, the average score of Japanese TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) takers is the lowest among all Asian nations except North Korea. Japan ranks just below Myanmar. Yep, the system is broken and it's kind of a bummer to be part of it. That said, basically anything we do is an improvement upon the textbook.

It's funny to think that last year we were writing cover letters and now we're Josie Sensei and John Sensei (or Ms. Josie and Mr. John, depending on the class).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Making mochi

Last Sunday we participated in a cultural exchange where we made mochi. It's rice that has been smashed to a sticky glutinous substance. Japanese people eat it especially at the New Year. I don't love eating glutinous things myself but it sure was interesting to make.

First you put the rice in the big wooden pestle.

Then you sort of knead it with the big wooden mallets like this:

Next you smash it with the mallet all the while turning it and adding more water.

It's finished when it looks like this:

We then formed it into little balls. We ate it with adzuki bean paste, with edamame powder and with daikon and soy sauce.

Luckily there was also a Japanese soup and a salad because you can only eat so much mochi. It's like Ethiopian injera bread - it seems to expand in your stomach.

All of our teachers are jealous that we got to make mochi last weekend so we feel pretty lucky!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

If you send us a holiday card...

We'll put it up on our Wall o' Love!

Here's the Wall o' Love so far:

Don't you want to be part of it? Pretty sure 3 stamps will do it!

Keeping Warm, 8 Ways

We live in Nagano prefecture. You know, where the winter Olympics were in '98. We have the Japanese Alps and we have snow. It gets cold. How cold? Last year our olive oil froze. My face wash froze. We hear that our predecessors used to unplug the fridge in the winter. Cold.

Why? We ask ourselves that all the time. We both grew up in the frozen tundra of the Midwest. We can handle cold. Also, Japan is so technologically advanced. You'd think they'd have robots following you around blowing hot air at you or something. Not the case.

Here's the situation: we have single-paned glass windows. Then we have shoji screens covering those. Shoji screens are paper. I don't think the house has any insulation to speak of. So far we've been lucky and it's been in the 40s and 50s but it looks like the cold snap is coming this week.

So, here are 8 things we're doing to stay warm, in no particular order. We are still learning some tricks and hope to pick up some more ideas this winter.

1) Kerosene heaters. These are illegal in most US states. They're pretty messy (have to funnel from a large container into the heater) and can cause fires. Also, there is a risk of asphyxiation as they consume oxygen and, if used in a small unventilated room, can use up all the oxygen and/or cause carbon monoxide poisoning (killing you without warning). This is the main heating system used in Japan. My school has one in every classroom. I have one blowing at me right now. They are also stinky.

2) Electric heater. We are borrowing an electric heater from a friend. It gives off almost no heat so we mostly dry clothes on it. It turns out clothes don't dry when it's too cold (and, like most of the world, almost no one has dryers here). So, we may have to start going to the laundromat if we don't want to rotate them constantly on the electric heater.

3) Kotatsu. This is a low table with an electric heater under it and blanket over it. You sit under it...all winter long. Families eat under it. Some people sleep under it. We just got a couch and now we're back on the floor camping under the ol' kotatsu.

4) Hot water bottle. Simple enough -pour boiling water in a plastic bottle, cover it with a fuzzy cozy and sleep with it or hug it while sitting under the kotatsu.

5) Onsen. Pay a couple of bucks to go to your local hot spring for a bath. Get as warm as you can handle and then hurry home to bed.

6) Heat packs. All my students have these little hand warmers in their pockets. They also have adhesive ones that you can stick to your shirt. My teacher says she wears one on her back every day in winter. I guess they're like the hand warmers hunters use except they're necessary for daily indoor survival here.

7) Layering. It's only early December and I'm already wearing socks, leg warmers, leggings, pants, tank top, long sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket and scarf to school. What else can I add? Another pair of socks? I went to the chain store Uniqlo and was amazed at the array of under clothes - long sleeve shirts and leggings for men and women to wear under their clothes. Also, they have these fuzzy bloomers for school girls to wear under their skirts. I've also seen a stomach warmer -like a leg warmer that you wear around your middle section. You may be too thin if you're willing to add a layer there.

8) Creative thinking. Put your clothes under your kotatsu while you shower or eat breakfast so they're warm when you put them on. Learn how to set your kerosene heater so it turns on 20 minutes before your alarm goes off. We want to figure out if we can cover our windows with plastic (like we do in the US). We've already hung curtains and blankets over our windows to keep some of the heat in and cold out. We've already put foam strips on our fusuma door frames to fill in the gaps.

9) Heated toilet seat. How could I almost have forgotten one of the best Japanese inventions ever? We are so grateful for our heated toilet seat since our bathroom area has no heat at all otherwise. Why don't we have these in the US?

Please tell us your ideas for staying warm!! We're wide open for suggestions...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Commercialism and Japanese Art

I think we've already mentioned our ongoing interest in the intriguing Yayoi Kusama, who is amazing as well as literally crazy (she voluntarily lives in a mental institution outside Tokyo). She was giving Warhol a run for his money for a while back in the late 50s in NYC. She calls herself the Princess of Polka Dots and does stuff like this:

But she's especially known for these:

As is common with Japanese artists, she wasn't recognized for her greatness in Japan until she was already well recognized by the West. It wasn't until 2006 that Japan gave her the Praemium Imperiale recognizing her as one of the most important living artists (she was also the first woman to receive this 2006!!). She once sold a piece for $5.1 million, which is a record for a living female artist. Not bad for some one who has struggled with mental illness all their life. Anyways, I found it interesting recently when I went to her website and discovered this:
She's posing with a cell phone and a purse that are bedazzled with her polka dots and are for sale. Moreover, she's quoted as saying, "This strange, joyout moment. I adore it. I love the 'iida' mobile phone deeply." Ok, so she's not known for her English skills. But isn't it kind of bizarre that she'd be pimping this stuff herself, on her own site? I mean, two years ago she sold something at Christie's for over $5 million - doesn't it cheapen her art a bit? Anyways, she's 81 years old. Would you buy a phone lauded by some one born before the 1930's?

As it turns out, this is behavior is not that strange for a Japanese artist. Look at Takashi Murakami.

He once sold a sculpture for $15.2 million at Sotheby's. And he designs for skateboards and placemats. He makes handbags for Louis Vuitton but also sells his art on keychains, t-shirts and other more pedestrian items. He also designed Kanye West's album art for Graduation.

Right now he has 15 sculptures on exhibit at the Palace de Versailles and the French monarchists are calling it illegal. It's probably because of his more erotic pieces, but I also wonder if the French have a problem with his commercialization. He has a studio outside Tokyo where his assistants churn out his merch - both "high" and "low" art. He's not the first pop artist to do this, but he has to be one of the more successful at it. He's lucky to be in Japan where they love cute stuff. He literally studied what makes characters like Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse popular and then created his own, Mr. DOB--seen here as a plush doll:
That's taking it a step further than Kusama, isn't it? Anyways, he's a pretty interesting guy to watch people's reaction to. As a Japanese tourist in Versailles said at the end of the Sydney Morning Herald article, "I'm not so interested in this type of object. Maybe this is better for foreign people, for French people. He's very famous in New York, isn't he?"

Yesterday I was feeling ambitious and made these homemade pumpkin pie pop tarts.

That afternoon a man appeared at our door with a big package (on Sunday - love that about Japan). Thanks to my family for the Christmas in a Box surprise!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Butoh: Something Japanese that most Japanese people don't know about

I can't remember where we first heard about Butoh but whenever we mention it to a Japanese person they think we're saying budo or mean bushido (the samurai code of conduct). It's this avant garde modern dance type art form. In some ways, it seems Japanese but it tips the scales of weird and there's no real cute to counterbalance. Sure we want to check out Kabuki and maybe Noh theater, but we really want to see some live Butoh someday. Funny enough, it probably won't be in Japan. Leave it to us Americans to be interested in one of the newest Japanese art forms. Butoh began only in the 1960's.

Critics of Kabuki point out that it has no personal interpretation. The actor is to follow the form completely. Noh is even more stylized and esoteric. They try to embody the character through the mask. The less the actor puts of himself into it, the better. Basically, some say it is form without substance. That doesn't really make me want to go see it.

Of course, Japanese butoh has more form than butoh in the West. Still, there seems to be more soul and spirit behind it than Kabuki and Noh.

Check this performance out - how interesting is this?

Psst: I made a mille crepe cake this week. It's so easy. Make a bunch of crepes. Whip some whipping cream into homemade Cool Whip. Layer crepe, whipped cream, crepe, etc. Periodically douse with chocolate sauce. Finished! Sorry the picture's not so hot. Obviously I took it instead of John:) Also it tasted way better than it looked!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Geysers and Shakshouka

We just had an Israeli couchsurfing couple stay with us for 2 nights. It was so interesting to talk about politics, food, travel, religion, military service, health care, abortion and other topics that come up when you're walking around town or cooking. They are a really cool couple; we'd love to stay with them in Israel someday. Also, they made us realize that eating kosher in Japan is arguably more difficult than being vegetarian here.

They made us Shakshouka. It's a simple but very delicious Israeli dish. I mean, we've used all these ingredients while cooking before, but we've never made anything quite like it. There are many recipes online, but this one seems about the closest to how they made it for us. It kind of reminds me of Mirza Ghasemi, a Persian dish I like to make but had kind of forgotten about. They were grateful that we introduced them to neri goma - sesame paste used here in Japan that is the same as tahini. So, they made a tahini dressing to drizzle over the salad and dip the bread in. It was so cool to have people speaking Hebrew in our Japanese kitchen!

They were interested in the geyser in Suwa, the next town over. We had never been either so we headed over Sunday morning. Here's some video John took. It's not Old Faithful, but it was worth the walk.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Still Fall

When I heard about all the snow and ice at home I started feeling pretty lucky that we are still having a beautiful fall here. It's been in the 50s and there are still some trees changing color. A couple weekends ago my friend and I went to a park in Takato that is known for its leaves. Indeed Japanese maples abounded and everyone was trying to capture the magic with their huge cameras.

Also, this fall I got a bit obsessed with chestnuts. In Kyoto I had chestnut ice cream, chestnut tart, chestnuts on pasta, etc. In Takato we saw these chestnuts that had fallen from the tree. Once I saw how they're wrapped in that spikey shell, their high cost made more sense. We roasted them in the oven the other day. Smelled just like when I used to eat them in the winter in Madrid. Street vendors would be roasting them on corners and they'd hand them to you in a paper cone. Roasting chestnuts is still one of my favorite fall smells.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sushi Party!

We made sushi the other night. Since we're vegetarian, we get pretty creative with what we think should go in it. This time we put egg, spicy tofu, cucumber, carrot, burdock root (we like the Japanese word better though - gobo!) and avocado. We get how the Japanese are minimalist and would probably just put one thin slice of cucumber. But we're American so we fill 'em chock full of random veggie goodness.

Our friend made gyoza and this lovely soup garnished with chrysanthemum!

Sorry for the dark photos!

Rice Cooker Chocolate Spice Cake

I'd been meaning to try this for a while and I'm happy to report - it works! I used this recipe but added nutmeg and allspice because I was envisioning a spice meets chocolate cake. It happened to be vegan but I feel confident now that any old cake recipe would work. The result was a moist and somewhat crumbly deliciously rich cake (I may have added extra cocoa powder to finish the bag off). I can't say this for sure but my sense is that in the oven this cake might have been a bit dry and crumbly. Here was the result after I flipped it out of my rice cooker pan:

Looks like a cake, right? It definitely needed something though. Then I remembered a recipe for vegan chocolate ganache only I was too lazy to find it at the time and ended up using this one only I subbed butter and my chocolate chips weren't vegan. The point wasn't to make it vegan but rather that I didn't have cream lying around. The cake looked much improved.

I will probably bake cakes in the rice cooker more often. My oven (read: large toaster oven) heats pretty unpredictably and I have to check on things a lot. With the rice cooker, I had a feeling I could have cooked it a little less or more and it wouldn't have mattered much. As long as the toothpick comes out clean, it's done, right? Plus, I don't have nice pans here and with the teflon coating of the rice cooker pan, the cake flipped right out and the clean up was easy.

Hooray for multiple uses of a bulky appliance!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Process vs Results aka Frustration Incorporated

There is a common phrase you hear in the US. It goes something like this: It doesn't matter how it gets done, just that it gets done. My dad used to go further and say, "Do something, even if it's wrong!" There is a very American impulse to DO without much thought to a specific way of doing. The results are what matters.

Well, just as with most everything in Japan, they operate under the exactly opposite paradigm. Here, they might say, don't do it unless you can do it the right way. And there is a right way to do everything. Cultural conditioning runs deep so as children they learn how to enter and leave a room, give/receive a gift, take their shoes off, eat, etc, in very scripted ways. Kanji (Japanese characters) must be written in a specific stroke order. There is a very distinct way to do nearly everything. That is, the Japanese way.

You can see how this can be a frustrating cultural aspect. Here is this week's example of the form over results (and/or logic) phenomenon.

John and I both taught demonstration classes this week. In my case, 20 teachers observed (80 teachers observed John's class). My Japanese teacher of English (JTE) and I planned, practiced and tweaked the lesson for weeks. These things are very scripted. The class went great. There was a meeting immediately after the class. So, all the teachers went to the neighboring classroom and sat down where the seating chart indicated (according to rank and school). Everyone was seated and ready but we sat in awkward silence waiting until the exact minute the meeting was to start. Opening comments (thank yous) were made with accompanying bows. My JTE spoke for a minute (in Japanese) and then I got to speak for a minute, giving my comments about the class (in English - whew!). The rest of the meeting was in Japanese. Everyone in the room was either an English teacher or a native English speaker. I could follow enough to know they were talking about me or the difficulty of some vocabulary for the students, for example. But essentially I was unable to understand the meeting which was about a class I primarily taught. Later I found out they were mostly praising the class. Their criticisms were mostly nit-picky as they had to talk about something for the hour plus allotted meeting time. There were also many awkward (to me) silences during the meeting. They have no sense of filling the empty space to create ease among the group as we do in American culture.

You may be wondering: Why did I have to attend a meeting that I couldn't understand or contribute to? (I attend such meetings weekly!) Why didn't they speak English so everyone could understand? (They feel uncomfortable speaking English.) Why didn't they just start the meeting early since we were all there? (They start on time, never early and never late.)

I was also wondering: Why do they even do these demonstration classes if they are too polite to truly discuss frankly and openly? What is gained other than freaking out the students and making more work for everyone?

The answer is essentially the same as my mother used to give me; because I said so. That is, because that's the Japanese way to do it. They've always done it that way. They are comfortable with it and it works (in the sense that it is the correct form not in regard to the results).

It must be so exhausting to be Japanese and to follow so many unspoken rules all the time. Then again, they are so culturally conditioned that they get satisfaction out of the rules being followed. They don't long to make their own as it's been conditioned out of them. Scary, right?

On the food front, last night we made vegetarian fesenjan, a Persian stew made with eggplant, walnuts and pomegranate juice (which John made from scratch!). We had it with Indian onion flatbread (also from Vegetarian Times). It was delicious! Tasted almost like Mohila at Caspian Cafe used to make back when I worked there in college. It's funny how tastes can transport you like that. And after the oppressive demonstration classes, we were in need of an escape.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Couchsurfing is Cool

A while back we hosted our first couchsurfers. We've had many requests but this was the only one that has worked out so far. They were a Spanish couple (actually Basque if you want to get down to it) on an extensive SE Asia backpacker itinerary and sights set on living in Australia afterwards. Our kind of folks. If you read Spanish, you can check out their blog.

We went to pick them up at the train station and got cornered by some reporters wanting a story with us. It was pretty embarrassing, but also really funny. Our couchsurfers got the wrong impression that our town is really exciting. They took some pictures:

This is us negotiating with the reporters. It was really confusing because we were trying to speak what Japanese we know to these guys and what Spanish we remember to the couchsurfers, meanwhile consulting between ourselves in English.

He was definitely one of those TV guys who seems normal off camera and then goes all crazy personality plus once the cameras are rolling. The "interview" went something like this (mostly conjecture--have we mentioned we don't know much Japanese?).
Reporter: Holy moly look at these huge gaijin over here!! What the heck are they doing in our town?! Let's ask them!! (we really did hear him say we were very tall). Good evening!
J&J: Good evening. (this much we know)
Reporter: Where are you from?
J&J: America (We don't say that in English but that's how you say USA in Japanese. We don't make the rules).
Reporter: What are you doing here?
J&J: We're ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers)
Reporter: What do you like to do around here?
J&J: Zenko-ji, Matsumoto-jo and Shimosuwa onsen (they really wanted us to plug it - pretty sure we've never been there actually).
Reporter: Ok, there you have it - that's what those weirdo foreigners like to do around here. Why don't you get on a train and go somewhere too? (Again, mostly conjecture but it seemed clear they were promoting a new campaign for Japan Railways.)

This appeared on the 6 o'clock local news. At least one of my teachers that I know of saw it. I swear they just wanted to embarrass us. I guess we could've said no but they were so insistent and Japanese politeness is kind of catchy.

In conclusion: we recommend We don't especially recommend interviews in languages you don't speak.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Seeing the Signs in Kyoto and Nara

I don't think we've done an obligatory Engrish/signage post yet. Here goes:

I guess the first question is,

(on Kyoto City Hall)
This says Abunai, which means look out! But, it's not very clear what would cause you to do a wheelie in the crosswalk. Overcautious much?

This is the supercute Nara mascot:

They use manga everywhere and for everything! Another cutie outside a temple:

These are things that could happen to you while feeding the deer in Nara.

Here are my parents in the face of some of those threats.

These are things you can't do in the Kyoto train station.

The Japanese love to use the terms Let's and Enjoy. It's kind of an ongoing joke among expats here. Ie. "Let's enjoy cherry blossoms." It's one of those things that's technically correct but we never really say enjoy or use let's like that. It's a perfect example of Japanese English - their own version of English that doesn't really apply elsewhere. Anyways, this sign seen in the subway takes the cake:

This one was actually seen in a museum bathroom in Matsumoto. In case you weren't sure which way to squat on a "Japanese style" toilet, this should clear it up for you: