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!