Archive for the 'Food' Category

Can you come over?

Sunday, July 10th, 2011 by Steph

I didnt really plan. Can you come over?

“Why not?” I thought. I think I remember the way: down the wide unpaved road, right at the asphalt, left at the vegetable stand.

Youve kindly laid out a feast, including some shredded meat that ran around this very yard about an hour ago. The freest-range chicken. The sky at dusk is distracting; bats begin to trickle along in an anemic inky stream, dispersing to find their own dinners. Mesmerizing. I could watch those wings twitch to and fro overhead all night.

Banter snaps me out of the reverie. My companions are discussing Cambodian politics (it mostly flows over and around me like water). Pot (outlawed two years ago; delicious in soup). The alarming frigidity of snowmelt (I thought I would die!) An excellent pick up line or two (witty juxtapositions of mirrors and pants). The costs and benefits of keeping a cat around (fewer snakes; more mosquitos). The daily rhythms of a monks life (hunger and peace). The proper way to add fruit to your rice wine (roast before adding, no oil).

As the night wore on, and the conversation fell away thread by thread, one singular thought remained: what luck to be surrounded by such joy, hospitality, and camaraderie.

Things I will miss about Japan

Saturday, July 11th, 2009 by Chris

As we prepare to leave Japan in two weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to something that’s been in the back of my mind for most of the three years we’ve lived here: writing down the things I love and hate about the place. Last week I griped about the things I find most annoying. Now it’s time for the bubbly conclusion.

So here’s the stuff I’ll miss when I go.


The Great American Fat Tracker

Thursday, December 20th, 2007 by Chris

Tomorrow we leave on our big three-week trip to America. In between seeing all the lovely people we’ve been missing for a year and a half, this trip is going to consist largely of stuffing ourselves with all the lovely food that we’ve been missing for a year and a half.

For fun I am establishing this graph to track my weight throughout the trip. If I am lucky, it will be a very boring flat line. As I blogged shortly after arriving in Japan, I lost 15 pounds pretty much immediately on moving here; I’m fully expecting to gain it back, with gluttonous interest, during this trip.


Tastes Terrible; More Filling

Friday, September 21st, 2007 by Chris

We passed this wonderful advertisement (?) in the city of Sakata, Yamagata. Unfortunately the building it was attached to was closed, so we never got to try this mysterious “blue soup”.

The text says “Kyuusai Blue Soup” and the speech bubbles above the guy’s head say “one more cup!” and “tastes terrible.” We never figured out if this was an actual product or just an elaborate joke.

Kyuusai Blue Soup

Country Prized

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Chris

There’s a marathon coming up in the nearby town of Gojome. The list of prizes completely captures the feeling of small-town life. Here they are as described by Gojome JET Corey Newman:

50 people will receive a “Morning Market Pack,” which probably has all the daikon and mountain vegetables you could eat – a virtual countryside tabehoudai!

25 people will receive 720ml of sake made right here in town. Our mayor owns a sake company, and it’s pretty good stuff.

Finally, another 25 people will receive 2kg of rice.

These prizes define Gojome.

Eat Your Words

Saturday, July 14th, 2007 by Steph

Ok, ok. I’m totally guilty. I admit it. I leave stuff to the last minute. And as an ALT, this is a really easy trap to fall into. Most of my last minute lesson plans have actually gone pretty well, which only encourages my sloth. This is especially true at the elementary schools, where I am pretty much given free reign to plan lessons. Because I only visit each school once or twice a year, I am usually asked to pull the same 3 or 4 tricks out of my bag. This combined with frequent schedule changes and a language barrier means that, more often than not, I just show up with a few general ideas for what I’m going to do until I see what curve ball I’m thrown.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know the Left/Right Mouse game or the Weather Song. Can you explain them to me? You don’t know them either? Instead you want the Hokey-Pokey followed by Fruit Basket? And you have no chairs and would like me to throw in something about animals. No problem…”

Eikaiwa, on the other hand, is the one place I have complete control over the lesson, and thus preparation would not go to waste. I decided to go wild and try it.

As part of my contract, I teach several extra-curricular English lessons for adults in the evening, succinctly called eikaiwa in Japanese. I’m currently going through my second round of such lessons this year, and I wanted to see what would happen if I actually poured my everything into it. Maybe it was the fact that the course length was only 6 2-hour lessons. Maybe it was coming back from a yearly teaching conference that stoked my idealism, inspired me to Make A Difference. Whatever the reason, I have been preparing.

Last night in class we went over the restaurant scenario. In addition to going over catch phrases and the like, I explained how eating out in America is different than eating out in Japan. In Japan, you usually get up and take your bill to a cash register. In America, if you don’t pay for the bill at your table, you’re tackled for trying to eat and run. In Japan, you cut through the din of the restaurant and call the server over with a loud “Excuse me” when you’re ready to order. At home, you just kind of have to sit around and wait until your server gets to you.

The last time I taught this lesson in the fall, we did a little role playing, where I seated the students, gave everyone a menu (in Japan, only 1 menu per table) and took their imaginary orders. We went over tipping, and I gave each table a bill. In the intervening months, I spoke to a friend who did this same type of lesson, but brought some actual food and made a mystery menu, so that students ordering A would get a cookie and students ordering B got kimchee. I decided to steal this creative idea for this summer’s class and make my own International Cafe.

I don’t know what possessed me to cook four entire dishes for my students. Maybe it’s the lack of international food in Noshiro. Maybe I want my students to understand that salad doesn’t always have to consist of cabbage. Maybe I want them to appreciate that spice comes in other flavors besides wasabi. Whatever the reason, here’s how the class went down: I made up a spiffy menu, with treats from Ghana, Greece, America, and Thailand. In the background is a world map with each these four places marked with a star:


Students have to order something from the menu. If they want to know anything about what they’re getting, they have to ask me what’s in each of the dishes and what I recommend. Then… we eat! Behind the scenes, I made up plates of fried bananas, spinach salad, spicy sweet noodles, and pesto pasta. While they were waiting for me to assemble everyone’s dishes, students had to practice small talk at their tables, a skill we’d practiced in the first half of class. On a side note, this lesson also taught me that Japanese people consider raw mushrooms to be death incarnate. Oops! Watch out for the tiny slices of oblivion in the spinach salad, everyone!

After class, I ran armfuls of dirty bowls and utensils out to my car in the rain. My kitchen was a disaster area. I was exhausted. Actually preparing for class? Not a bad idea. I might even do it again. But for now, I’m off to attack the mountain of dishes in my sink.

Sumo, Spiderman and The Swallows

Sunday, July 8th, 2007 by Steph

Last Saturday was my school festival, which was really just “Let’s Celebrate our Unanimous and Inexplicable Love for Johnny Depp” day in disguise. This is quite possibly the best way to earn my keep for a day as an English teacher. I wandered the halls, I was seduced by tasty festival treats: cotton candy, hot dogs, and fried chicken bowls. I went from room to decorated room in a fascinated daze. They were like classroom sized dioramas of whatever struck the students’ fancy. One room was dedicated to Depp himself, and was a kind of Willy Wonka goes pirate kind of theme, complete with pirate ship, booty, candy covered walkways and golden chocolate bars. Down the hall, they were showing “Pirates of the Carribean” on a loop all day. The adjacent classroom displayed a showdown between good and evil Spiderman, with the webbed men hanging from the ceiling, strands of web streaming through the air. The final classroom recreated a very convincing Japanese shrine out of cardboard, including the huge red torii gate, the stone lions which flank shrines (here they were cute cats made out of layered styrofoam) and ema, which you could write on and hang on the wall. Other rooms were filled with class newspapers, which were painstakingly detailed by hand, with kanji characters flowing down the page, and elaborate designs behind them.

No school event (not my school, anyway) is complete without some combination of male nudity and an uncomfortable homoerotic skit. Odd but true. The boys’ baseball team jogged in in their skivvies, and kissed each other on the lips on stage so everyone could laugh at them, and began a spirited dance routine. I have no idea what that was all about, but something similar seems to happen at every school function.

Immediately after the festival, we drove as fast as possible to Akita city, where we joined several other JETs from around the ken for an honest to God baseball game, Tokyo Swallows vs. the Nagoya (Nagano?) dragons. Despite their oddly un-intimidating mascot, the Swallows kicked ass. Meanwhile, I was blissfully discovering that the snack stands contained not just yakitori and ricke crackers, but also churros! No Mexican food available for hundreds of miles, but for baseball, churros? Why? For the remainder of the evening I did what I do at every baseball game… hang out and drink beer and schmooze with my friends and watch very little of the actual sport itself.

The next day was GAIJIN SUMOOOOOOO, a yearly event we do in our prefecture for charity. Twenty-four non-Japanese English teachers volunteered to wrestle each other after a quick lesson in the finer points of sumo. We’re hard core here, so they wore naught but the traditional sumo mawashi (diaper) for the fight. This year’s fight was in an actual sumo ring, and at the end, the winner went head to head with an actual sumo fighter. It was a pretty intense and amazing event… videos of some of the fights can be seen here. There were some pretty amazing upsets, and lots of scraped up toes, backs, and buttcheeks by the end of the day. Chris would not yield to my pestering, and didn’t compete this year, but after seeing the glory that comes from battle he has promised to participate next year. Here’s a little taste of the ringside action:

We then RAN home from sumo to join my adult English conversation class for an early Fourth of July blowout on the beach. This event was masquerading as an English class event, but really it was just an excuse to cook food I have been craving for a bunch of friends. I was adamant that we have buns to go with the burgers and dogs, and adamant that these burgers be cooked on a grill, components which are all too often missing in the Japanese version. Chris mixed up some patties with a little recipe magic from mom (thanks, mom!). They were received well.

I was worried about making enough food to feed 20 people, but my eikaiwa class saved the day; piles of yakisoba, watermelon, and corn braised in soy sauce were waiting for us when we arrived (despite my protests that soy sauce for the 4th is a bit non-traditional). We made sure to adhere to watermelon-eating protocol by having a seed spitting contest. And of course, no 4th is complete without some fireworks, readily available during the summer in this wet wet country.

Amazingly enough, everyone who said they’d be there was there, including our beloved Brits (a must for the 4th, don’t you think?), and some Canadians from down south. They were kind enough to inform us that not only were we celebrating the 4th early, not only were we celebrating Claire’s birthday (July 1st), but we were also celebrating Canada Day (also July 1st. Hooray!). Lucky for us that celebrating Canada Day is an awful lot like celebrating the 4th (minus the pancake breakfast). What a nexus of celebratory goodness.

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Thursday, May 17th, 2007 by Steph

I love conveyor belt sushi. It’s great because it’s a) fun and b) I can afford to eat it every week. It also happens to be at the only place in town where you can purchase a bottomless cup of soda (a proud American tradition whose absence I mourn in Japan). I’ve become such a regular that the veteran sushi chef behind the counter meets me with a smile when I come in, and nonchalantly places my favorite items on the conveyor belt in front of me. He doesn’t speak, but you can tell what he’s thinking: “I’m not saying you WANT the salmon, I’m just saying you’ve eaten like 20 pieces of it in my store in the last month. Let it cruise on by if you want, it makes no difference to me…”

Conveyor Belt Sushi Place recently opened up a sister store nearby, and I thought I would give it a go in the spirit of loyal patronage. The new place definitely had a different feel; it was more open, had cooler music, brighter lighting, and a comfortable waiting area for hoards of customers that would inevitably come.

My ritual for conveyor belt sushi is usually this: sit, grab an empty cup, a green tea bag, and a soy sauce bowl from the small conveyor belt just over the counter. Snag a tube of wasabi passing by on the upper conveyor belt. Get hot water for tea from the spigot placed just in front of the customer at the counter. Grab ginger and soy sauce from containers at the counter, just to the right of my elbow. Proceed to eat boatloads of sushi. It’s a whole beautiful choreographed dance of deliciousness.

But at the New Sushi Place, everything was subtly different. I didn’t realize how much I’d come to depend on these small details. No wasabi on the conveyor belt. No tea bags, no spigot. Where was everything? I couldn’t begin my meal until I’d found and assembled these basic raw materials. I located small bowl and filled it with soy sauce, but was then stumped at how to proceed. I then spied a small bowl of green powder with a tiny spoon. Ah! This must be wasabi powder, just like the tin in my spice cupboard at home! I took a spoonful, dumped it in my soy sauce.

When the Japanese couple next to me fought valiantly not to snicker, I realized to my horror what I’d done: I put green tea powder in my soy sauce. Let me say that one more time, so it really hits home: green tea and soy sauce. I’m pretty sure that’s a bad combination world-over, no matter where you come from. The kanji on the receptacle’s lid, which I hadn’t bothered reading, was now glaringly obvious.

After living in Japan for almost a year, I kind of thought I was beyond making these elementary gaijin mistakes. I probably should have been deported for such a culinary transgression. Instead, my neighbors at the sushi counter kindly averted their eyes, and pretended like nothing had happened.

Thanks for the fish, New Place, but I think I’m going back to my reliable sushi standby.

Check, please.

More Little Moments

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007 by Steph

Some of you may have noticed that the frequency of posts has been slowing of late. We’ve been living here for 7+ months now, and there’s only got so many quirky foreigner moments you can have before this formerly foreign place starts to seem normal. Allow me to catalogue for you a few of the smaller Japan Moments that have come our way:

The Steam Truck
For the longest time, Chris and I could hear this eerie off kilter whine in the distance. And it would creep closer. And very occasionally, we would catch up with this truck on its way through town… steam whistling out the top, with some kind of machinery in the back, like a huge kettle on wheels. But why? Was this person delivering hot water for busted winter pipes? Or maybe making deliveries to more rural areas with an inconsistent water supply? (::cough:: Futatsui ::cough::) Mystery solved as soon as my Japanese skills caught up with my curiosity. I just went out and asked the dude behind the wheel last week… it’s a yam truck. Like, quick, go out and get your piping hot yams. Even though this technically answers my question, I still can’t quite believe that the high demand for yams requires a roving truck.

The Shocker
There’s usually a variety of pools in an onsen: indoor and out, hot and cold, sauna, waterfall, jets, different minerals in different pools, you name it. But I had a new kind of onsen experience last weekend. I noticed the kanji for electricity by this pool, but didn’t think much of it; maybe it meant something different when it’s next to that other thing I can’t read, whatever. We get in, and notice little holes on the side of the wall. When you get close enough to the holes, BAM!, electric shock. I don’t know what this is and why it doesn’t kill you or how it’s supposed to be good for you. All I can tell you is it was uncomfortable and creepy. We got out right away.

Further research indicates that this is a “denkiburo” or “electric bath”. It’s reportedly popular with older folk who have rheumatism.

Illegal Buns
We ran into an ex-pat in a pizza parlour. We discussed how, in Japan, you can have hot dogs on sticks or spaghetti in a bun, but under no circumstances do you see a hot dog actually in a bun. This guy further explained that he had tried to start up his own business to fill this gaping hole in the Japanese economy, and when filing his papers, he discovered to his chagrin that hot dogs in buns are not allowed. He’s can’t even sell hot dogs and buns separately, because what if the customer combined them? What if the officials noticed? Someone would have to be held responsible. His papers were denied. “You really should have known better than to open up a store selling hot dogs and buns. Together. I mean, really.” This story borders on urban legend for me, it sounds so ridiculous. I asked my Japanese teachers about it, who also thought it was silly, but also were unable to explain the dearth of dog+bun. I don’t know if it’s a phallic issue or what. Hello out there, if you know what’s up with this, please fill the rest of us in.

Yuki yuki yukkuri

Sunday, February 18th, 2007 by Steph

I had elementary school visits for the last two weeks, which means the inevitable… I’m sick again. Although it’s doing wonders for my conversational Japanese. Here is what I’m getting really good at saying:

  • I became sick.
  • Yes, I have a cough. I’m sorry that I’m loud!
  • No, I don’t have a fever.
  • Yes, I’m taking medicine.
  • Slowly, slowly I am getting better.

Being sick for like the 4th time this winter, I have been disinclined to blog lately. But this didn’t stop me from going to the mother of all Japanese festivals… The Sapporo Snow Festival. Dun-dun!!!!!

Vivien the unflappable joined us in Noshiro for the few days preceding the festival. This must have been tiresome for her, but we tried to spice it up a little by dragging her to a few tasty restaurants and an elementary school, as well as introducing her to the boredom banishing joys of purikura and karaoke.

As for the festival… this year was kind of a great and kind of a terrible year to go. Great because the timing was such that the festival culminated on a 3 day weekend. This is essential for anyone traveling from Akita who wants to spend more than a day in Sapporo. The logistics of the trip are a little insane… 7-9 hours by train, and around $150 each way, but hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetimer, right? On the other hand, it’s a not such a good year to go because, well, it’s the warmest winter in Japan in like 100 years, which has turned visions of grand icy vistas to slush.

Viv and Chris took off early on Friday, since they’re not chained to the Japanese school system as I am. I left later with a flock of JETs… we drove an hour to Akita City, then took a 9 hour red-eye ferry, followed by a bus to the train to the subway, finally arriving in Sapporo at 8am on Saturday with 3 solid hours of sleep. I have to say, if you’re thinking about taking the ferry in Japan, go for it, cause it’s super cheap (comparatively… unless you have one of those super amazing gaijin train passes, in which case, never-mind) and SWANKY! This boat was totally decked out with an outdoor hot tub (sadly, not in service in the winter), a pub, cafe, restaurant, video-game room, and movie theatre. Also included were some of the most awesome food vending machines I have ever seen. One spit out ice cream, for those in need of immediate gratification. Another would produce your choice of karaage or onigiri, providing you had a few minutes to wait for the manufacture of hot food. Also awesomely present was a “sports” room, which consisted of two ping pong tables, only one of which had a net. Let me repeat that so it can sink in: a boat with ping pong. Seriously, how great is that?

We made up an elaborate set of rules that allowed all 4 of us to play at once with only 2 paddles. I believe the other two people made do with a cell phone and a hair brush. Rules included spontaneous verbal commands, including “llama” (switch tables), “eagle” (aim for the ceiling), and “tiger” (aim for your friend). It all smacked a little of Calvinball, and produced not a few sidelong glances from our fellow passengers.

So! Sapporo! Full of great restaurants, parks, and temples, all on an orderly and not-so-Japanese grid system, along with extensive underground tunnels, shops, and stores to duck the harsh winter. Fabulous city, just fabulous. Except, this year, for the lack of snow. Kind of a disappointment when you go to a snow festival, eh? I’m not a very hearty winter soul, so I was happy enough with the weather, which hovered around freezing, and got to -5 Celsius at its coldest. It snowed just enough to be atmospheric. Apparently, earlier in the week when folks were making the snow sculptures, it was too warm, and snowy appendages were falling off left and right (the horror!), but the cold returned just in time to rejuvenate the sculptures for the hoards of incoming tourists.

Pretty much what you do for a snow festival is walk around and look at stuff between snacks. We sampled the gamut of Sapporo’s festival food: corn, potatoes (these mysteriously were covered in powdered sugar), amazingly delicious frankfurters, condensed milk crepes, pork buns, and chocolate covered bananas. The snow sculptures were of course the main attraction. The sizes ranged from person-sized to larger-than-your-house. All sorts of snowy gimmicks were employed, including a sculpture with fish frozen in it, and all manner of blinking and colored lights. Performers took to the snow stage at night, ranging from hard core heavy metal to cuter than cute J-pop.

Though we were severely sleep deprived, we took a whirlwind tour of everything the wintery city had to offer. In rapid succession, we ate the famed Genghis Kahn at the Sapporo Brewery, followed by a tour of their museum. How fun is it to see old pics of Japanese brewing masters with vests and handlebar mustaches? We also liked the wall of advertising, showing geisha after geisha from multiple eras with a nice tall frosty pitcher of beer.

Then it was off to the Ishiya chocolate factory, which produces Sapporo’s famous white chocolate delights. We made it there just in time to see the slightly sinister and overly happy on the hour clock display, which lasted for a good 10 minutes, and involved singing dogs, gophers, pigs, and chocolate chefs. After a quick cake and coffee and sled down the kiddie snow hill, we hit the third museum of the day, tried to learn about sake. Really we just ended up taste-testing, as it was more of a one room store with pictures than a museum.

Phew. Exhausting. With that we had to go and eat a very speedy (but utterly delectable) ramen meal before sending Vivien on her way home by train. If you go to Sapporo, it is mandated that you try their ramen. I don’t care how hot the weather is. I don’t care if you think all ramen tastes the same. You’d be wrong, and you shall kick yourself a thousand times over if you don’t sample the liquidy noodle-tastic delight that is butter-corn ramen. If you can find it, patronize MOGURA (もぐら). It’s on the southeast corner of the big central intersection of the Susukino nightlife district, just a few doors down from the subway station entrance. It’s the ramen shop with filled to the gills with equal parts steam and local character, with the lady at the door telling anyone who will listen, “Doozo. Oishii, yo!!!”

Of course, with evening came the illumination of all the snow sculptures, so we had to go see them again, taking goofy thematic pictures with as many as possible. At night, the ice bars also open for business, which are pretty fun to try… bartenders pouring whatever you just ordered down an ice slide to chill your beverage of choice. Or there was the “carve your own shot glass out of ice” booth. Or you could be boring but happy like me and get some hot Bailey’s to warm you to the tips of your toes.