Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Homemade Granola

It's surprising given how much I love granola, but I had never made it myself before. We're sick of the one kind of granola available in the grocery store. So, I found this recipe and decided to give it a go.

It's funny because it was really easy to make and I had everything I needed on hand. Sure, I subbed raisins for the cherries and I didn't use banana chips, but basically I had it all. As I was putting everything together though, I realized how much effort had gone into getting all the ingredients.

I mean, the oats were from an organic store a 20 min bike ride away, the coconut syrup I subbed for maple flavoring was from Bali, the molasses from Tokyo, the maple syrup from Matsumoto, the coconut from a Brazilian store in get the idea.

Anyways, it was delicious. Yesterday I saw a recipe for granola that involved amaretto so I may have to try that next. That is, after I bike to Okaya to get more oats...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I'd invite you in, but...

you're already in.

There's this quirky thing with Japanese houses. The entryway - always a step lower so that you remember to take off your shoes - is considered public space. Here's what ours looks like (except now we have a rug there and the red kerosene container is gone):

So, oftentimes if we hear the doorbell ring and start running downstairs, by the time we're at the bottom of the steps there is already some one standing in the entryway. This has happened with delivery people, neighborhood organizers and the like. It's a good reminder to be fully dressed when you come down those stairs.

Sunday night at 8:30pm we were visited by whom (after a struggle) we realized was a census taker. The conversation went something like this (to us). The words we recognize were in Japanese but are transcribed here in English. Wa WA Wa Wa WA wa (you know, like Charlie Brown's parents) I don't understand Japanese, wa wa wa wa wa wa, wa English wa, Yes-English! Wa WA wa WA wa wa now wa wa wa wa 2 people wa wa wa wa place wa wa wa wa, hand gestures indicating he would return. Oh boy. Sometimes we wonder why we answer the door at all. Oftentimes we whip the poor person into enough of an embarrassed fluster where they just run along. This guy, however, seemed like he had something serious to convey. We knew he'd be back.

A few minutes later there was the slightest ding of our bell and BAM - he was back in our entryway. He handed us a document in many languages. The English bit explained that this was the census and we'd need to participate. Then he gave us an envelope with the actual form (completely in Japanese, just riddled with kanji characters). We got the gist that we needed to drop it in the mail. Pretty sure he'd be back if we didn't.

So, I had a teacher help me fill it out. Ok, a teacher filled it out for me. Apparently they do the census every 5 years in Japan. The questions included; our names, occupations, birthdays, how long we've lived there, where we worked, how we got to work, how big our house was, who owns it, etc. Nothing about race or ethnicity. The Japanese government? Just not interested. I mean, it'll be pretty obvious from our names and occupations, but still. There was even a question about where you lived 5 years ago. That was Argentina for me but if it was a foreign country they weren't interested in the specifics. There are Chinese, Brazilian, Filipino and other immigrants here--lots of them. Wouldn't you want to collect data on that? It might tell you, for instance, that you need to offer the census form in something other than Japanese. Just saying.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shosenkyo Gorge

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to visit Shosenkyo Gorge with two friends--one Japanese and one from New Zealand. It's near Kofu. You walk along the river bed.

Gorge-ous, right?

It wasn't really "hiking" so much as walking along this path. Let's just say there were women in heels and dresses carrying purses. That's Japan for ya! Also, there were all these souvenir shops and restaurants along the way. Good for bathroom access and snacking, but not great for really feeling like you're in the nature.

They were really into showcasing the agates, crystals and other interesting stones, in this case in this little rock garden. I can't decide if it's creepy or cute. That's a frequent problem for me here.

Finally we arrived at the Sengataki Waterfall

You know how there's a stereotype about Japanese tourists obsessively taking pictures when they travel? They're like that when they travel domestically too. It was like the paparazzi--poor waterfall. Luckily I'm tall and can pretty much take pictures over people's heads :)

Rice Harvest

This is a rice paddy on John's walk to school in Matsumoto.

I remember when the rice paddies were full of tiny little green sprouts. Now it's harvest time.

Soon it'll be so cold we'll be running between our kerosene heated room and the rest of the house. Our olive oil and face wash will freeze. We may just unplug the fridge because our whole house will be one.

Hopefully, before we know it, they'll be planting new rice!

Monday, September 20, 2010


Yesterday we broke down and bought this:

We haven't had one of these since July 2009, if you can believe it. We were living in that basement apartment across the alley from my old office in Whittier, Mpls. Our couches were hand-me-downs from my sister but they were the nicest we'd ever had. Sadly, they wouldn't fit up the stairs to the attic we were moving into and we had to do what all good Minneapolitans do--put them in the alley for dumpster divers. As we were bringing them out some gentlmen walked by and seemed interested. I said, "Hey--we're bringing the matching loveseat out next, if you want both." They said they lived in a sober house down the street and could really use them. So, while they went to get more guys to help carry them, we brought out the other one plus the matching pillows. It felt good to help our neighbors out even though we were resigned to throwing blankets and pillows on the floor when friends came, pretending we were lounging about like sultans when really everyone was quite uncomfortable.

We figured we were preparing ourselves for life in Japan where everyone sits in the floor. Indeed, there is a LOT of floor sitting going on here. Oh sure, there are cushions and petite floor chairs but essentially you are low, very low. Since a friend offered to take us to the second hand shop (and has a van!) we decided to try our luck. It was the only couch there, but it only cost 2600 yen ($30) and folds out into a bed. It was a huge score. Last night we watched Project Runway while sitting on our couch AND drinking a Dr. Pepper and were sure we had found bliss.

The quotations around "couch" are because it is still quite low and our knees are above our hips when we sit on it. It's not a proper American couch, but it's better than the floor!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

School Refusal

There is a phenomenon in Japan called toko kyohi (school refusal) or futoko (non-attendance). Kids, for various reasons, stop going to school. By law they have to finish junior high school (through the equivalent of 9th grade), but their parents just can't get them to attend. This is a big problem. At my small town school, we have about 300 students plus 15-20 who don't come to school. Some are 16 or so and want to work but probably can't find a job since they don't have their junior high diploma. One girl is from the Phillipines, her Japanese isn't that great and she wants to go back to the Phillipines. Others are just shut-ins who stay on the computer all day. One of our teachers is assigned to go to their houses and work with them one on one.

She asked me what happens in the US with kids who don't go to school. I said that after they were truant a lot, their parents got in trouble and may even lose custody if they can't get their kid enrolled in and regularly attending a school. Also, I told her about alternative schools which are less strict. I turns out that our town is setting up an open school at the town library where the kids can drop in and hopefullly it'll count towards school attendance. Here's the question though, why don't they want to come to school?

I have a few ideas. First of all, Junior High School in Japan is intense. Take all of your preconceptions of American JHS and stuff them. They have been preparing their whole lives to perform for these 3 years. This is it. They have sports or band practice before and after school. They practice during school breaks. Many attend juku (cram school) for English. We had the annual school festival last week and sports superstars were playing koto. Band members were doing English speeches. Dancers were doing Taiko drumming. If a student says they practice shodo (Japanese calligraphy) they will always say they've been doing it since they were 4 years old. Their lives are incredibly scripted, the education based on rote memorization and regurgitation and there is little to no free time. When asked what they did over summer vacation, most of my students went with their families to the sea - for 1 or 2 days of a 4 week break. All said they studied. When pressed, some played video games or watched tv.

Here's the thing, most students are happy as clams. They are doing what they're supposed to be doing. They are excelling at it. They are part of the group (the most important thing in Japan). They are standing out only for winning competitions. Otherwise, they are blissfully blending.

The futako kids must feel like I do at school. They don't feel like part of the group or like they ever will be. Except they don't get to fly home to where they DO fit in after a couple of years here. They are stuck. And if they can't bring themselves to face the group at 13 years old, they're in big trouble here.

Bullying is a problem in Japan because they like social dynamics to form organically and don't step in when it occurs. The bullied child is blamed instead of the group. That is changing now. Some of John's students made fun of a special needs girl and had to apologize to her, her parents, write letters and visit the family at home on the weekend, not to mention get suspended from school. But, in general, the Japanese mentality is such that the parents ask, what did you do to stand out and get bullied? (like the old Japanese proverb "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down").

Maybe the futako kids are just missing that unique Japanese gene that makes them ever concerned with the group to the detriment of themselves. (Indeed, there is no word for "self-esteem" in Japan). Maybe they're self conscious and inward looking naturally and can't adjust to the group dynamic. Perhaps they're exhausted by trying to keep up appearances. In Japan you have to cultivate your "tatemae" (false face) and rarely express your true feelings (usually only after many alcoholic drinks and bouts of karaoke and that outlet isn't available to teenagers). These kids just aren't willing to play the game, probably. It's easier to pass the hours on the computer or reading manga.

There is an awareness of this problem now but society is so entrenched in its ways that it's difficult to bring these kids back into the fold. Even if you could kick the strong prejudice against mental illness and get the child some psychological help, actually going back to school is an enormous leap. Maybe the open school at the library is a good start for the kids to at least get out of their homes and talk to some one other than their parents.

Whenever I see the foreign kids at school or the ones that don't always come, I feel a kinship with them. None of us are truly in the group. I wish we could form our own little support group or something. At least I'm getting paid to be there.

Whoops, this got long. I guess I had a lot to say on the subject! Because posts without pictures are boring, here's a shot of the bread I baked last week. (Japanese bread is either wonderbread type or too soft/sweet for our liking.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tidbit Blitz

Here are some random tidbits from the last week or so:

  • When pronounced "Joshi" my name means girl(s) in Japanese. Awesome. Turns out a lot of my kids have been calling me Ms. Girl or Girl Sensei. That explains why the Filipina woman I met with my same name (Jocelyn spelled the same way and was called Josie in the Phillipines) goes by Joi here in Japan.
  • I played in a teacher's volleyball tournament a couple weeks ago. We won second place which meant that our team's picture was printed in the paper. It was very competitive and fun to feel in my element for once. No, I wasn't the tallest person. There were a few guys who were my height or a centimeter or two taller. But yes, I had a definite height advantage for blocking and hitting. The principal and vice principal came to watch and I downed tons of sports drink called Pocari Sweat.
  • My co-workers continue to be masochists. In the last week I have turned down opportunities to attend the English speech contest Saturday 1:30-5:30pm (one of our students is participating), a teacher's drinking party after the school festival (and after 6 consecutive days of work) and an all day teacher's trip to Nagoya (this one would've cost me $155). Go home and see your families fellow teachers!
  • We were offered and turned down a FREE CAR. This happens in Japan. It even had 1.5 years of shakken left on it. Every 2 years you have to get your car inspected to make sure it's safe for the road, been properly maintained and hasn't been illegally modified. It can be very expensive. For instance, we have a friend who bought a car for $200 but when the shakken came up less than a year later she had to pay almost $1000. Also, the car needed a little work. See how it wasn't actually free but a pile of problems? We're determined to live in car free bliss and just be generous with gas/toll money when people give us rides. Between our feet, bikes, buses and trains, we should be all right.
  • The cicadas are in constant cacophony and there are tons of beautiful big dragonflies and moths flying around. I used to have this cell phone that only had nature sounds for ring tones. Well, it turns out that my ring tone began with the sound of this insect that I now often hear over here in Japan. It's really bizarre. I'll just be correcting papers with the windows open and then find myself half looking for my phone. I do kind of miss that phone.
  • We watched this interesting documentary this week called No Impact Man about a couple and their toddler who try to live no impact in NYC for a year. It made me realize how our lifestyle in Japan is kind of low impact by default. We always try to live simply, but here we don't have a car, air conditioning or a dryer, can't really buy clothes, cook our food from scratch, etc. Then again, other things are worse here. Japan packages their packaging. Apples may be in a plastic tray and then covered with plastic, for example. We do get a few yen off for bringing our own reusable bags at the grocery store but if you aren't quick at 7-11 they'll have your items in a plastic bag before you can get your wallet out. There aren't really farmers' markets although there are orchards in our town where you can just go to a stand and take some apples/peaches/etc and leave money in a box. Anyways, for as much as we're painstakingly recycling, not using paper towels, etc., our flights to Japan and to and from Bali just kind of blow our carbon footprint out of the water. Sigh.
  • Earlier this week we had one of those clear days when I can see Mt. Fuji from the 2nd floor classrooms of my school. But by the next day, dense fog rolled in and it rained on and off for a few days. People kept talking about the impending typhoon, but it fizzled out before it got to us. Not sure what a typhoon is either? It's a hurricane but in the Northwestern Pacific. We had the funny little realization that we knew what to do for a tornado but not in a typhoon. We're inland and surrounded by mountains so I don't expect we'll get many strong ones. Then again, when you look at a map of the Pacific, Japan's islands aren't exactly huge landmasses. Fingers crossed for an exciting but not too serious typhoon while we're here?!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Food Musings

While it was Labor Day back in "the States" yesterday, it was just another working Monday for us. Lately we've been watching Jamie Oliver's "Jamie Does" show. It's got us pining for Europe with their crusty breads, stinky cheeses, fresh herbs and amazing desserts. We may just have to live there again some day. That show is frustrating for us though because he's always making it look so easy. Half the time he's cooking outside over a fire, for goodness sakes. If we only we could find the ingredients (or even close approximations) here in Japan.

With the exception of the fried stuff like tempura (which is delicious), vegetarian Japanese food is almost too healthy. We live in Nagano, which is known for soba. That's buckwheat noodles, folks--healthy much? We like soba cold on hot days like we've been having. It's called zarusoba. The recipe we use is this one. Warning: John says washing soba is even more annoying than washing rice.

Sometimes we miss things from a previous life. John reminisces about "mushy peas" with Chinese gravy from his UK days. I had a hankering for Argentine empanadas last night so I made this approximation with gyoza wrappers (essentially wonton wrappers but in a circle instead of a square). They work really well. Even though they don't taste much like the real thing, they're a lot easier than rolling out empanada dough.

I ended up throwing all kinds of stuff in them like spinach, napa cabbage, tofu, corn, parsley, dill, salt and pepper cheese. It's about 400 yen for 100 grams but it's worth it to eat good cheese every once in a while. I guess they turned out more like baked gyoza than empanadas :)

We even had some high fructose corn syrup free barbecue sauce (always a challenge to find) that we brought back from Bali. That's the American in us coming out--we love our condiments, don't we? We hope everyone had a lovely Labor Day weekend with lots of condiments to choose from. Variety is the spice of life, after all. (Not rice 2-3 times a day as is the case here).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sun Shunners

Japanese people hate the sun. This is not at all unusual to see on a beautiful sunny day:

Umbrellas are ubiquitous in the rain and sun. They even have umbrella stands that are like lockers--put in a coin, get a key. Clothes cover everything not only because people dress more modestly (at least in our small town) but because they want to avoid the sun. Old ladies wear long white gloves up past their elbows. They've created these sun hats (bonnets?) that have a cloth hanging off to protect the neck while gardening. People wear kerchiefs and towels around their necks while walking for exercise. Construction guys are covered head to toe. Even when it's crazy hot my kids often wear their full polyester track suits instead of t-shirts and shorts. You'd think they'd sell sunscreen by the liter but it comes in typically Japanese petite quantities. Who needs it when you're all covered up like that anyways? For being the "land of the rising sun", they sure shy away from it.

I asked one of my teachers about it yesterday and she says it's because they think white skin is more beautiful. I get the sense it shows one's class in a way, kind of like in the 19th century in the western world? In Bali we saw skin whitening creams (these are common in India too) but here they just practice prevention.

Ganguro is a fashion movement that countered this.

Wikipedia describes it like this: Ganguro appeared as a new fashion style in Japan in the early 1990s and to date is prevalent mostly among young women. In ganguro fashion, a deep tan is combined with hair dyed in shades of orange to blonde, or a silver grey known as "high bleached". Black ink is used as eye-linerand white concealer is used as lipstick and eyeshadow. False eyelashes, plastic facial gems, and pearl powder are often added to this. Platform shoes and brightly-coloured outfits complete the ganguro look. Also typical of ganguro fashion are tie-dyed sarongs, miniskirts, stickers on the face, and many bracelets, rings, and necklaces.

It's kind of creepy really, not to mention inappropriate. After all, Ganguro means "black face". Luckily Ganguro peaked in about 2000. Now they're back to sun shunning around here.

As for me, I know the sun is bad--skin cancer is a very real risk. But vitamin D deficiency is real too, especially when I live in a wintery place. Even during the rainy season in June, it seemed the sun rarely came out. When I can get some sun, I like to enjoy it in moderation. It feels divine to have the sun shine on you. I want to wear sunglasses and tank tops and skirts and sandals (sometimes at the same time--gasp!)

I'm taking the middle ground. I wear sunscreen and hats, but I also bike and run around the lake in shorts and a tank top. It's hot out there! My neighbors can stare if they want to--they do anyways. I'm going to enjoy the sun before it turns cold and I'm huddled in front of my kerosene heater again.