Monday, June 28, 2010

Using Yuba: Ganmodoki

Yuba is a by-product of tofu. It is the bean curd they skim off the top while boiling soy milk to make tofu. It's like a vegetarian superfood since it is very high in protein. As a bonus, it's extremely inexpensive here.

That's right--30 yen or about $0.33 for a whole bag! Our friend Taya makes miracles with the stuff including falafel!!

We found this ganmodoki recipe on our favorite Japanese cooking site Just Hungry. John had made it a few months past but without the yuba. This time he didn't add any yamaimo (although, proudly, we actually know what that is) or potato.They're basically just yummy fried veggie patties. . Here's the prep picture:

While cooking...

and the final product with a delicious mustardy sauce John whipped up.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Onsen = Hot Spring = Bliss

I am both proud and ashamed to report that we finally went to the onsen just up the street from us. It's in a big hotel and we'd heard it was the only one in town with a rotenburo (open air onsen). The couple we took over for told us it was their favorite in town. It's only about a block from us. We love hot springs. So, why hadn't we been before? I think it was a combination of things. 1) the lethargy we experienced when we first arrived--after a day of new jobs, new people and a new language the idea of doing something else new that involved getting naked with strangers seemed a bit much. 2) the innately counter-intuitive nature of paying $5 to bathe. and 3) soon enough it was summer and who wants to essentially sit in a hot tub when it's hot outside?

So, what was different yesterday? We decided we were too sick to go to the overnight party at the cabin. I'm not so much recovering from my sinus infection as I'm growing accustomed to it. I'm on antibiotics now but don't seem to be getting any better. We had been inside all day. It was cloudy, cool and drizzly outside and it sounded amazing to be in hot water with the cool air on our faces while looking out at the lake and mountains. Also, isn't steam good for clearing your sinuses?

Upon arrival we had one of those classic awkward travel moments. We were standing in front of two doorways with Japanese writing above them and no stick figures to indicate which door we should each enter. There was a blue and a red curtain. It reminded me of a similar experience I had in Krakow, Poland. I was confronted with two doors--one with an X and the other with an O. Apparently, Poles know which one they are, but I had to give it a think. If I remember correctly, ladies are Os. Trisha, Bret? Well, in this case I noticed that the bathroom sign for ladies was in red so I chose that door. Luckily, I saw the ladies' shoes lined up in their neat row.

After that it was smooth sailing. You strip down to nothing and go into the steam room are where one pool is (with a beautiful view out). You grab a tiny plastic stool to sit on and a plastic bowl to pour water on yourself with. You sit in front of a steamed up mirror and alternately spray yourself with the showerhead, soap up, repeat. They had soap, shampoo, etc. and I finally got to try charcoal bamboo face wash--quite lovely, actually.

After you're all clean you can get in the indoor onsen (hot) or the outdoor one (very hot!). It was so relaxing--like a $5 spa experience. The other women didn't seem to look at me weird or pay me much mind at all. There was a little maybe month old baby sleeping on her mom's lap while her mom cleaned herself. Later the grandma brought the baby into the pool and was singing to her. John said there was a little girl on his side with her dad.

All these memories of my other experiences in public bathing cultures rushed back to me--the dodgy Moroccan hammam, the opulent 300 hundred year old Turkish bath in Istanbul and the Gellert Thermal Baths in Budapest . Now I live in a bathing culture and can do this all the time. I'm definitely going to make a habit of going, especially in the winter when it's about the only way to get warm.

Maybe you're wondering, is it weird to be naked with strangers? Only for about the 1st minute of the first time you do it.

Here's a photo of the cinnamon bun scones I made this morning. Sorry, I look at so many food blogs, I don't remember which one I got the recipe from. I also made a butterscotch pie and a rhubarb pie yesterday but those weren't as pretty.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Eating seasonally by default

Eating seasonally is a trend in the US and it just makes sense. So what if you're eating organic kiwis if they're putting it on a jumbo jet from New Zealand to get it to you in the middle of winter? In Japan, eating seasonally is part of the culture and something that is hard to avoid. The produce section reflects what is available now. For example, there are almost no apples in June and if you find them they're very expensive. The good news is that the produce that IS in season is very reasonably priced. This can be annoying when it's cherry season, they're practically giving them away and you don't like cherries. However, there are also those miracle moments like a few weeks ago when we happened upon huge bunches of rhubarb for $4 (not a trace of them the next week, sadly). I've also bought $2-3 pineapples recently which always seems like a miracle to me because those don't grow on trees. It can take over a year for a pineapple bush to grow one pineapple.

One result of this phenomenon is that we have been trying new foods. Have you ever eaten a fresh fig? We hadn't either but we highly recommend them. We ate them raw and in smoothies and they were gone so quickly we never got a chance to try them on a pizza. Here's a picture.

I had only eaten dried ones before and I never would've guessed they were originally this big. We have also been eating golden kiwis, which we never saw in midwestern grocery stores back home. They are yellow and sweeter than green kiwis. We still like the green ones better but it's nice to have some variety. Another thing we've tried was fresh apricots which we ate raw and baked into muffins. What's next? Probably kumquats! We're taking your suggestions for exotic fruits and vegetables!

Things seem to being going up and down for us lately. We had a great time with my uncle and then we both got bad colds. We received an awesome care package from our friends Katie and Sam and then I cut my finger on a paper cutter and needed 6 emergency stitches. John's bike was stolen and then it was returned. Our 2nd anniversary was yesterday and we got a fun package from my parents...and we still have bad colds. Hopefully we're on an upswing now though. We are going to a cabin this weekend with a big group of fun people...assuming this isn't an ear infection I feel coming on.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Our first visitor!

My incredibly brave uncle was visiting recently for 4 days so we were too busy sightseeing and eating Japanese food (soba, ramen, tempura, sushi and sake-lots of sake!) to blog. We hope we were good hosts. First we showed him all that little Shimosuwa had to offer (2 shrines and a big Buddha!). The next day we headed to Matsumoto, ate some yakisoba and then toured the castle, which was quite impressive. In a stroke of traveler's synchronicity, my uncle had recently been to New Zealand where he saw an exhibit of the artist Yayoi Kusama. There is a picture of her at this site: Well, she is from Matsumoto and has an installation outside their art museum. Here's a picture of he and John outside the museum. (Yayoi Kasuma loves dots!)

The next day we went to Nagano City to see the Zenko-ji. This is an amazing Buddhist temple made even cooler because it's a sect that allows women to be priestesses. We didn't see any that day, but we did see some monks doing sand painting and other monks engaged in a ritual involving fire, drumming and chanting. Perhaps they were preparing for the Dalai Lama's visit there next week.

My uncle kept having those moments where he was aware that he was actually IN Japan. We kept having those moments that we actually LIVE in Japan. Showing some one else around you get to see how much Japanese you DO know and how much you know about a place. Obviously, Japanese culture is vast and the language is very difficult. But, we feel like we are starting to get our bearings here now. At least we feel pretty comfortable being here and getting around. Thanks to our first visitor for helping us realize that!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Miss Lists

10 Things we Miss from "Home"
1. YOU! Family and friends. Thanks for hanging in there and keeping in touch with us. Skype/email/talk to you soon!!
2. Good Cheese--feta, goat cheese, blue cheese, manchego, triple cream brie, etc. Here there are two varieties--pre-shredded "mozzarella" and cream cheese.
3. Being able to read, especially labels.
4. Being able to communicate with people, make jokes and avoid embarrassment and confusion in our native language.
5. NOT banging our heads on low doorways, mostly in our own house.
6. Couches! We just have these little chairs on the floor that we sit on. We don't mind having our bed on the floor, but couches are just so much comfier. They exist here but we don't want to invest, try to get it to our house, etc.
7. The library and easy access to English books, magazines and newspapers. You can only read on the computer so much. We can order books online here but it's costly and we go through books quickly.
8. Food other than cheese like tortillas, granola, flax, cheap nuts, cereal, Mexican food, couscous, quinua, granny smith apples, etc.....
9. Cultural diversity. Everyone in Japan is so...Japanese. It's almost eery, especially since we were living in the most diverse neighborhood of Minneapolis before we left. The only place I see foreigners is at my Japanese class where the Indonesians, Brazilians and Chinese congregate.
10. Not standing out, just being one of the crowd. Let's just say that if we see another gaijin in our town or the next few over, we already know and are friends with them. That's how few of us there are. I'm constantly surprising small children and old people especially with my height and white.

10 Things we already know we will miss when we leave Japan (in no particular order...)
1. Cheap alcohol. Japan apparently hardly taxes their alcohol and you can really tell how much in tax you must be paying at home. We just saw a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label for $21, for instance.
2. Our cute little 2 story house to ourselves. Laundry machine, tatami mats, shoji screens, area for garden, sunlight galore, extra room for yoga and visitors.
3. Our huge rice cooker--perfect rice, every time. We may need one of these at home.
4. Cheap, plentiful tofu, especially the pre-fried kind. Also, amazing nori for making sushi.
5. Crazy fast fiber optic internet.
6. The 100 Yen shop (ie Dollar Store). Here the 100 yen shop isn't really trashy. It's more like Target except a lot cheaper, obviously. And you can get everything you need for making Japanese food that you never knew you needed--like tempura paper for soaking up the oil and rice scoops.
7. Seeing cute shiba inus everywhere. Go to: if you don't know what we're talking about. They are so rare at home and so abundant here.
8. Not being so busy. We have the same schedule for the first time ever and can cook dinner from scratch together every night. We have time to exercise, cook, read books, watch movies, study languages (Japanese for Josie, French for John), hang out with friends, etc. We don't spend much time at all running errands or doing things we don't want to do.
9. Being on Japanese National Health Care for about $20/month. We hear it covers dental so we're going to try to see a dentist while we're here too.
10. The shrines, temples, onsen, sushi, karaoke places, vending machines that sell hot coffee, sake selection, cheap flights around SE Asia, paying our bills at 7-11, not needing a car, etc.....

It's a good thing we're not planning on leaving any time soon!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Working Stiffs

Japanese people are masochists. It's not necessarily that they work harder. They are just at work for so many hours. We live across the street from my (Josie's) school so we see my co-workers arrive as early as 7:30am and leave as late as 10pm or so. This is a picture of school from our upstairs window. Teachers make appearances on Saturdays, Sundays and during holidays like Golden Week. They come in early even if there is nothing to do and they'll stay late with another co-worker who has to stay and finish work. This all falls under "voluntary overtime". They work sick so as not to take time off. Sometimes work makes them sick like one of my English teachers who has suddenly lost the hearing in her right ear (the doctors say because of stress and working too much). They have to coach sports and oversee after school activities and don't get paid any more for it. They complain about this system but don't try to change it.

Here's the fundamental cultural difference in the work culture as far as I see it: The Japanese don't work in order to support their personal life and interests. Work is, in and of itself, the end goal. Being a cog in the machinery is it. Every school/company is like its own village with its own song, logo, uniforms, etc. They take care of you in many ways. You bond with your co-workers during those long hours. You get full physical check ups at school (so far I've had an x-ray and given blood and urine samples).

In return for your loyalty, dedication and sacrifice of your personal life, you be a part of the group, I guess? This is what doesn't make sense to my Western mind. You don't necessarily get a promotion or a bigger bonus than anyone else and you don't get a trip or a watch or anything. In fact, as far as I can tell, the longer you work there the more responsibilities you are given. Especially if you are young-ish, single and without kids--they just keep piling it on. The teachers with kids must never see them. The single teachers complain they don't have time or know where to find a partner.

I was reading recently that work is seen as an act of virtue in Japan whereas in the West it is seen more as a necessary evil for sustaining one's personal life. What's the point in working so hard to create a clean, orderly, efficient society and manufacture state of the art products if no one has the time to relax and enjoy life?

Maybe this incongruency is more apparent to me because I've spent so much time in Latin cultures (Spain and Central/South America) where people work very hard but also prioritize family, friends and fun. When we ask Japanese teachers what they did last weekend the answer is usually that they worked, went home to see their family, worked on their plot of land, etc. They are always exhausted. It's depressing. John takes the train to work every day and says people are asleep on the way to work and on the way home. They're like zombies. If creativity isn't stifled because of the consensus culture and group think pressures, it's destroyed by pure exhaustion. This system makes for pretty uninteresting people who only have their work to talk about. However, once you have broken them of that innate desire to live for yourself and indoctrinated them into the group mentality (starting when they're school children), you have ideal workers.

I feel very grateful to be a gaijin (literally, outside person). I'm not a full-fledged teacher, just an assistant and hired through my private company. I have a contract that dictates when I start and end work, my vacations, etc. I don't get pressured to stay late. Especially because I don't understand Japanese, there are many meetings it just doesn't make sense for me to attend.

It's also hard to feel too bad for them. They do it to themselves, don't they? If a few teachers decided to switch things up, the group mentality could shift, it seems. They get vacation/sick time; they could use it. They could work more efficiently and leave at a reasonable hour-- no one's physically holding them there.

I just wish I didn't feel so guilty that I have a husband, a personal life, hobbies and vacation plans. Then again, these are all just first impressions. We've only been here for 4 months. Hopefully, I'll find a more nuanced view of work culture as I continue to learn more.