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:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ode to moss

We found ourselves really drawn to the beautiful moss in Kyoto.

Can we have a backyard full of this stuff some day instead of grass?

Monday, November 8, 2010

We were lucky to have more visitors - Josie's parents!

After a few days around here, we went to Kyoto and Nara with them.

If you like golden temples,


zen gardens,

more Buddhist temples,

huge Buddha statues,

interesting, modern train stations,

feeding deer,

and delicious food

then you will LOVE Kyoto and Nara.

More to come. Thanks for visiting mom and dad!!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mt. Chogatake

Josie climbed Mt. Chogatake yesterday with a friend.
Here's a view from the top:

I had to wake up at 4:30am, it was 4 hours up and 3.5 hours down. Almost the whole way it was snowy/icy and we were the only ones without cramp-ons. I'm super sore today.
But here's the thing: It was totally worth it. The Japanese Alps are beautiful!
The icing on the cake? We saw so many snow monkeys on the way down. I couldn't get a good picture of them but we even saw a baby on a mama monkey's back.
If you're not familiar with Japanese snow monkeys, this should give you an idea of their cuteness:

Pictures from Kyoto and Nara coming soon!!