Saturday, January 29, 2011

5 Japanese proverbs

Fall down 7 times, get up 8.

10 men, 10 colors.

Clear sky, cultivate, rainy, reading.

The pheasant that keeps its mouth shut is least likely to get shot.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Friday, January 28, 2011

One year in Japan

We've been in Japan a year now! The three weeks before we left were so busy and surreal and then we were here. And we've been here ever since. We've learned a lot about Japan and ourselves in the last year. We're feeling really grateful for the things that have made this move a success. Here's a list:
1) Our house. We have the cutest Japanese house - just going to go ahead and say it. It's minimalist yet cozy, it's versatile, and the rent is cheap. Plus we can have a little garden. We're so lucky to have it.
2) Our friends here - from all over the world and of all different backgrounds. It's nice to have people to talk to that understand our every day life.
3) Nice Japanese people. At one of John's jobs he deals with an alternative reality Japan filled with dissatisfied mostly un-nice people, but for the most part, they're a really sweet lot. No, they don't have a clue what it's like to be a foreigner in their country, but they're cautiously curious about learning and we appreciate that. We're especially enjoying our community center English class. More about that in another post.
4) Visitors - Not sure how we would have done it without Uncle George, Trisha and Kim, mom and dad, Erin, Joanna and Anders and even couchsurfers. It's really validating to have people see where we live and remind us why we like it here. Hopefully we'll have more visitors yet!
5) Cooking and baking - We've been doing a ton of this in the last year. Obviously we're learning how to make Japanese food, but also French, Indonesian, Israeli, etc. We're making our own breads, tortillas, veggie burgers and more. It's so nice to come home from work and have the time and space to create something delicious. Watch out for when we actually have access to all the ingredients we desire once we're back home!
6) Internet - we're able to keep up with the news, our favorite shows, music, blogs, online yoga classes, etc. It's getting a lot easier to live abroad than it was when we first did it - 10 or so years ago. Sometimes it feels like we live in a parallel universe that is in no way connected to our old life. But then we skype or video gchat or receive an email or letter and that connection with friends and family makes all the difference.
7) Travel - We have a lot more vacation time than we would have working in the US. It's really expensive to travel within Japan but we've been able to see quite a bit in the last year. Also, Bali for 3 weeks. The promise of future travel also fuels us....
8) Saving money - It feels good to pay off student loans and save for travel and school. We can't really spend too much in our little town - no clothes that fit us and no movie theater or real nightlife. Basically we just spend on basic expenses and quite a bit on food and travel. We can keep our expenses a lot lower here than we can in the US though. For instance we only pay about $60 for both of us for Japanese National Health Insurance per month and at home we were paying $180 for catastrophic coverage only.
9) Each other - You really test your relationship when you move to a foreign land. It's all J&J, all the time. Luckily we get along pretty well and share mostly the same interests, values and goals. Whew! We were pretty sure after 4 weeks in Central America, 6 weeks in India and 3 months in South America but this has been by far the most difficult. There are times where we feel like we looked in this picture:

10) New experiences - In the last year we ran a half marathon, went show shoeing for the first time, went canyoning, sang our hearts out at karaoke many times, hiked in the Japanese alps and did lots of other new things. Hooray for getting out of our comfort zones!

Overall, it's been a good year. Wow this winter is seeming long and cold though. We're very much looking forward to spring weather...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Japanese vegetable knife - nakiri bocho

We've been wanting one of these ever since we had to say sayonara to our wedding gift Wustofs and hello to the Daiso knives we inherited here. As many have commented, we cook a lot. For the 1st time we have the same work schedule and can actually cook together every night.

Anyways, as a New Year's present to ourselves (we've never really done Christmas gifts), we decided to buy a Japanese knife. We did a tiny bit of research on the internet - just enough to know that we wanted a nakiri bocho. It's a Japanese vegetable knife, suitable for domestic use, sharpened on both sides, etc. Nakiri bocho means "knife for cutting greens".

So we went to Sennichimae Doguyasuji when we were in Osaka. It's a street full of kitchen supply stores. We got to see and pick up a good amount of knives and ask questions. Luckily there wasn't an overwhelming number of them. We kind of zeroed in on one store that had tons of knives and a really helpful woman who spoke some English. Here's what we came away with:

Isn't it pretty? We have no idea how to sharpen it ourselves or where we'd get it done here. However, we're just cutting vegetables with it anyways so it should stay sharp for a while. It was definitely helpful for cutting up all the vegetables for the oden (a Japanese winter stew) we made the other day based on this recipe. We took a lot of liberties though - no mushrooms, turnips or watercress and we added squash and lotus root. We're loving lotus root these days.

Ok, we know you're wondering how much we paid for it. It was almost 12,000 yen and then we bought a cedar cutting board for about 3,000 yen. It's about what we wanted to pay and less than what we were willing to pay so we were happy. Anyways, we'll use it every day we're in Japan and for many years to come.

We had a magical mail day yesterday. I've been wanting/looking for a 2011 planner and my dad sent one that has fun international factoids in the back. Thanks, dad! Also, our old roommate Jackie-O sent us a lovely card and her cd. Have you heard the Soundheads? Check them out!! We wish we could see 'em live in Mpls but we'll have to settle for the cd for now :) Thanks, doll!

Also, our couchsurfer Basque friends posted about their visit with us on their blog. So sweet of them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Women in Japan - by the numbers

Here are some factoids I've been compiling over the last few months from books and online articles.

1999 - the year birth control became legal in Japan.

2.2 - % of Japanese women who are on the pill.

1949 - the year abortion became legal in Japan (almost a decade before other developed countries)

106th among 189 countries in terms of percentage of lawmakers in the House of Representatives.

54 - % of Japanese women in their late 20s who are single (in 1980 it was 24%)

90 - % of the 8 million part-time Japanese workers who are women.

10.7 - % of women in senior corporate and political positions (42% in the USA)

Women earn 40% of what men earn in Japan (widest gap among developed countries) (I've also read 44%)

86.05 years - average life span for Japanese women. (79.29 years for men)

1.27 - children per woman birthrate (1.09 in Tokyo) (2.15 in USA)

1.7 - % of children born out of wedlock (vs. about 40% in the USA) I've also read it's 1.1%.

17 minutes - average time Japanese fathers spend with their children each day.

Over 25 - % of unmarried men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 who are virgins.

For Japanese women ages 15-34, suicide is the #1 cause of death.

1945 - the year Japanese women got the vote.

23 trillion yen (or about 27.7 billion USD) - yearly profit of the Japanese sex industry.

Companies with the highest ratios of women perform 50% better on the Tokyo Stock Exchange than those with the lowest ratio of women.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A day in Kobe

Kobe is less than a half hour by train from Osaka but has a totally different vibe - more industrial and newer, obviously, since most everything had to be rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake.

The first thing we did was follow the crowds to the shrine where everyone was waiting in line to pray. See the shinto priest in the foreground?

Then they were tying their wishes to this tree.

We were hoping to see some yakuza (Japanese mafia) in Kobe since the largest family, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is based there. Either they weren't so obviously dressed and styled as they are around here or they weren't out and about at the tourist sites:) We did see this Japanese graffiti though!

We ended up in Chinatown.

We could tell because this is what greeted us.

We got a little lost while looking for the sake brewery and came across this cleverly named basketball store.

Incidentally, we did find the sake brewery and it was pretty interesting. There were videos in English to help explain things. Then we bought some sake to drink on the train and headed down to the waterfront.

The architecture of the maritime museum is pretty spectacular.

Makes for a nice skyline along the port, no?

As a bonus there was a big ship docked down there. We love old ships, especially John.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Eating vegetarian in Osaka

We hardly eat out at all in our town. It's expensive, there's not much for vegetarians and what there is, we've already tried. (By the way, if you're wondering if you can use sushi rice to make risotto, the answer is yes! We made squash risotto with amaretto last night and couldn't even tell it wasn't arborio.)

Back to Osaka. We ate Thai food, Indian food, izakaya (Japanese pub) food, street food and food from the combini (convenience store sushi!)

The main thing we wanted to try was kaiten sushi. Erin used to work at a Japanese owned kaiten sushi place in Seattle so she was a big help in deciphering what everything was. John eats fish and seafood so there were no problems there but Josie hasn't been able to convert - still lacto-ovo vegetarian. Kaiten sushi is ideal if you don't speak much Japanese because you can just grab your food as it goes around on the conveyor belt. You know how much each thing costs by what color plate it's on. You can always order stuff right from the chefs which we did once or twice because the vegetarian stuff wasn't coming around much.

So John and Erin ate things like this:

Josie ate things like these. This one is natto. It's fermented soybeans which always confused me because that's what tempeh is. But tempeh is firm and nutty while natto is slimy and stinky. I've been told by numerous Japanese people that natto smells like feet. They eat it on rice for breakfast here. It's very nutritious so I wanted to like it. It was palatable, but let's just say I didn't have seconds.

These thin rolled egg ones were sweet and delicious though. We want to try to make them at home now since we have a Japanese square egg fry pan.

We cleaned up at this place. 3 miso soups and tons of sushi and it was still one of the cheapest meals we had in Osaka. Most of the rolls are 100 yen, some are 2-300 but basically nothing is over $3 or so.

The thing one MUST eat in Osaka is okonomiyaki. It's been described as a Japanese pancake or a Japanese omelette but it has way too much cabbage to really be either. We must have eaten ours too quickly to get a picture so here are some of our friends'.

There are tons of variations on this theme with names other than okonomiyaki and we can't keep them all straight yet. They pour the batter on the grill in the table and you sort of cook it yourself (or at least it stays really warm). We had eaten it before a few times and have always liked it. It usually has meat or seafood so we have to beg them to make it without. We also indulged in one of our other favorites - yakisoba.

Yakisoba and okonomiyaki always taste better out at restaurants than when we make them at home. Must be the extra msg or something...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

When I asked John what his favorite part of our time in Osaka was, he said the aquarium. It's one of the largest in the world and perfect for winter sight seeing because really, what is an aquarium but an indoor zoo? Also because there weren't just fish there. Check out these cute (and somewhat vicious) otters, for instance:

We got to watch these capybaras have a snack. They're the largest living rodents in the world making them essentially giant guinea pigs.

The penguins couldn't stop looking at themselves in the mirror.

The giant spider crabs were amazing.

This crazy sting ray was giving another fish a piggy back ride.

The fish were THIS close.

Eels are so weird....

The real stars of the show were the jellyfish though.
These pictures are especially for our friend Carrie Ann who loves 'em! We hope these make you smile CA and that you have better luck in the rest of 2011 :)

Here's video of one of our favorites.

There were also turtles, every kind of fish imaginable, sea lions and dolphins, etc. Because it's Japan there was ridiculous music playing throughout the aquarium. There were also tons of kids and everyone was saying "sugoi" and "subarashi". When the aquarium workers were finished feeding the animals they bowed at the crowd. Bet you don't see that at the Shedd Aquarium!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Osaka - the most fun place in Japan?

Osaka is our new favorite city in Japan. Here's why; it's fun, really fun. There is joy in Osaka and we can't say that about all of Japan. It can be kind of a buttoned up, melancholy place to live. Osaka lets it all hang out though.

If Kyoto is for steeping in the old and contemplating Buddhism, Osaka is for reveling in the new and eating and drinking until you drop. If Tokyo is where you go to see masses of Japanese people, Osaka is where you go to interact with them. Because here's the thing - people in Osaka are more outgoing and friendly and they seemed to speak a lot more English than we're used to. Most Japanese people are really polite and helpful but that doesn't make them outgoing or friendly. Osakans were smiling and joking around with us. There were street musicians and magicians. It now makes sense to us that most of Japan's comedians come from there.

Perhaps another reason we liked Osaka so much is because it's a little grittier than other parts of Japan we've seen. There are some seedier areas, which came as a relief really. We saw graffiti and garbage (gasp!) and hosts/hostesses/escorts galore. We also saw the first homeless people (well, just men) we've seen in Japan. We even had a beggar or two approach us. Now, it's not Guatemala City or Managua or anything, but it was a bit dodgier than the rest of Japan, in a good way (except for the homeless folks, of course). It never felt unsafe, just edgier.

We took the opportunity to do most every fun touristy thing there was to do. Maybe we should mention this too - there's not a ton of must-see sights in Osaka, unlike Kyoto which has them to spare. It was kind of nice to not feel pressured like we did in Kyoto. That said, we did a ton of stuff.
  • We saw the view of the city from the top of the Umeda sky building and rode on the largest ferris wheel in the world.

  • We visited the National Museum of Art Osaka and saw contemporary pieces by Japanese artists.
  • One of the highlights was the aquarium - photos to come in a later post but let's just say that we got to pet the fish. Here's Josie petting a sting ray. It was soft like velvet!
  • The girls went to Spaworld which was ridiculous and awesome at the same time.
  • We reunited with J & A and visited the castle.
  • We played arcade games and took hilarious photo booth pictures.
  • We went to a standing shot bar and sang karaoke (twice). That's the kind of place it is!
  • We daytripped to Kobe and ate and ate - more posts coming on all that too. Here's a classic fake food pic to tide you over....
  • We people watched a whole bunch. This Japanese gal pretty much sums up Osakan fashion. Fur is IN! Yes, that's a fake fur tail hanging from her belt :)

Gosh it's an exciting, dynamic place. Sure we were helped by the company we kept, but it seems impossible to not enjoy yourself in Osaka. We recommend it to everyone who loves fun.

Here's a quick panoramic video of the Dotonbori area of Osaka near the river at night.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Japanese New Year's cards

We forgot to mention that on New Year's Day we got a real Japanese New Year's card in our mail slot. It's not the best picture but you get the idea.

One of John's students sent it to him. We told you he had reached celebrity status--fan mail! On the other side was Pooh-san (Winnie the Pooh) who is apparently all the rage here this year. Happy Year of the Rabbit everyone!

In Japan New Year's cards are such a big deal that the post office holds them and delivers them on New Year's Day even though it's a national holiday. (The national postal service was privatized a few years ago which is also why we get packages on Sundays!) As a former mail carrier, Josie thinks this is no fair. As enthusiastic mail recipients, we think this is a pretty fun tradition.

This weekend we're going to Osaka. We're looking forward to being in a big city, seeing one of the largest aquariums in the world, eating okonomiyaki, relaxing at Spaworld, daytripping to Kobe, shopping for a Japanese kitchen knife and most of all, meeting back up with Erin!

By the way, did you see this article about the record setting price a tuna sold for in Tokyo on New Year's Day? Almost $400,000!

Monday, January 3, 2011

We're the only ones in town

without one of these on our door:

They're for good luck. They're kind of superstitious here, no? We hear they'll be burning them in a few days for the annual Dondoyaki ritual (this facilitates, not diminishes the luck).

Do you know about takoyaki? They're battered and fried octopus balls. John loves 'em. This guy impressed us with his takoyaki flipping abilities on New Year's. We were mesmerized. Also he was listening to hip hop and wearing a Rocawear shirt, which was pretty cool.

By the way - a big thanks to our family for the video camera they bought us as a going away present. Our other camera has battery issues so we've been using it exclusively these days.

Lastly, I made crackers yesterday. We don't have wheat thins and such around these parts so I decided to make my own using this recipe. I put different topping combinations on each batch - salt, pepper, sesame seeds, rosemary, sage, etc. Now that I think about it, I should have used dill. Next time! Even if you can go to the store and easily buy crackers, I still recommend making your own. They're delicious, don't have weird preservatives and you can customize them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Shinto is so festive

On New Year's right outside the shrine you can buy a balloon of your favorite character.

You can eat crepes (notice the Engrish..."every one's favorite seet! wold you like one?").

You can buy good luck charms.

You can buy a fortune

and tie it up. (Happy Year of the Rabbit!)

And you can watch a bonfire!

Plus, on New Year's Day we saw this on the way up to the shrine:

No one was dancing along or even bopping their heads, of course. But still, there's a rhythm, people in cool outfits, carrying a mini-shrine and making a spectacle.

We popped over to our town's Buddhist temple to see what they were up to.
Here's what we saw:

Don't get us wrong, it's beautiful how they raked the rocks after the snow had fallen and all, but it wasn't exactly this:

Without Shinto, this town would have no celebrations at all. No Onbashira festival, no New Year's celebration, nothing, since all community events seem to revolve around the shrines. This is probably a very outsider view of things though. Most Japanese people we've asked don't consider themselves especially religious. They'll say they're not but they do agree that they visit the shrine and whatnot. Being Japanese is being Shinto and being Shinto is being Japanese. They're so entwined that you can't really separate them.

Shinto sure does a good job at getting the kids interested though. It seems other faiths could really take a cue from them. Japanese kids are probably begging to go to the shrine so they can get dressed up, get toys, eat treats and get a fortune. It's very different from the rather austere Catholic tradition we were both brought up in. We're curious to learn more about Shinto but our experiences with it so far make it seem like one of the most casual and fun religions we've encountered.