Marie Antoinette's pastry slave
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20th-Dec-2014 09:32 pm - Tokyo job fair
was sleeping
Normally I wouldn't go to Tokyo just 2 weeks after I was last here, but a friend told me about a job fair this weekend. I'm trying to decide whether I want to recontract or to move on, so I need to know what the non-JET workscape is like.

Everyone had to wear suits, but it was set up in a nasty concrete warehouselike space. There were rows of booths set up, with all decorations and pictures and sometimes balloons, and behind rows of plain white booths for interviews. I kind of get a panic attack right away in that kind of atmosphere. Plus, the reps were standing outside the booths, trying to get people to check them out-- I couldn't shake the feeling that there must be something very wrong.

Then, none of the companies I talked with seemed quite right. There were jobs like hotel receptionist or shirt salesman, with salaries of about half of what I get now. There were highly technical engineering jobs, which I amnt qualified for. There were IT jobs, where they train you in all the technical stuff you need, but that takes 2-5 years. I thought I knew enough Japanese to start working already!

I suspect that when the time comes, I shouldn't rely only on job fairs like this. I'm debating whether or not I want to even go to the second day. But if that's a good representation of the current jobscape, I'd be better of staying a JET for as long as I can.
14th-Dec-2014 08:50 am(no subject)
was sleeping
3 updates on my life as of now:

1: I took the JLPT1 again. As I prepared more by reading than by studying kanji, the reading section, which pretty much destroyed me last time, seemed pretty simple. I didn't even run out of time. But the vocabulary section, which I aced last time, was mostly guessing this time.

2: I finally bought a hot water bottle, a 3-liter one, and I can't believe how nice it is to have something to keep your feet warm! It even stays warm all night!

3: Is anyone else also super annoyed that even though Marvel films have been announced through 2019, we still aren't getting a [spoiler]Black Widow movie?
28th-Nov-2014 03:31 am - my surprise for the day
was sleeping
Today 2 of the English teachers were discussing the various classes, and one of them mentioned that for one class, in gym class, when it was time to swim, it became a big deal who went first-- it was a very shy class.

I went, "Wait a minute-- so all of them knew how to swim already?"

Them: "Well, they have to. Swimming is required in gym class."

Me: "But what if they don't know how to swim?"

Them: "They teach them how to in elementary school. Is America different? Are there a lot of Americans who don't know how to swim?"

Given that I still don't know how to swim, I was surprised (and felt so inadequate!) to hear that they all learn how to swim in elementary school! American school districts can only wish for the sort of money that lets them put a pool in every elementary and middle school. And I cannot imagine trying to teach a whole class full of first-graders how to swim!
21st-Nov-2014 10:53 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
I just got the strangest chilly reception I've ever gotten in a gym. I had been debating between 2 gyms (see post in TQC here: http://thequestionclub.livejournal.com/114930343.html ), but a coworker just told me about another gym. It's a little farther away than Close Gym in above post, but it's on a 50 kph road, so it takes the same amount of time to get there. I checked it out online, and it looked awesome: generally 3 classes per day, and it charges only about 2/3 of what the others charge. It has aquabics once a week, and it also sometimes does Tai Ch'i.

So I went there to check it out, and felt sort of disappointed right away. It's a small studio in the middle of a shopping center with restaurants and pools, so the 3-level parking garage was crowded. Next, the guy at the reception desk seemed sort of disappointed that he'd have to guide me. Then, there were people lined up outside the studio, and he said that that's because the studio is locked when not in use, until 10 minutes before the classes. There was going to be a barbell class in 10 minutes, so the teacher had just showed up, and I asked if I could talk to her to get a sense for what her class was like, and he pointed to the description on the schedule, and said, "Just read the description. The class is starting soon, so she doesn't have time."

Next, there is another studio that is always unlocked, but it's just a largeish room, with one of those nubbly carpets that you see in offices. There's no mirror, and the only equipment I saw were yoga mats and cushions to sit on. He said that I could use the yoga mats but not the cushions, since they belong to another group that sometimes uses the studio. "In that case, can I bring in my own equipment?" I asked. (After all, being honest with myself, even if I have some no-equipment or low-equipment workouts, I don't really want to do them in my living room.)

"What sort of equipment?"

"Like a Pilates wheel, or a yoga ball, or a stretching pole," I said.

"What's a stretching pole?" he said.

"A pole about so big (gesturing with my hands). You use it for stretching."

"In that case, no. It would be a bother to the other people who want to use the studio."

"I don't understand. It wouldn't be much more of a bother to other people than my arm or leg would be."

"Well, if that's the way you think, then we would prefer if you restrain yourself from joining."

He also showed me the pool, which is about a third the size of the one at either of the others, and said that it was 1 meter deep and 31 degrees C (about 88 degrees F). He didn't let me go up and stick my hand in, either. But it seemed to be more a pool for relaxing in and less for swimming or even pool-walking in.

I left feeling sort of disgusted. I called Close Gym, and they said that bringing certain equipment in is OK, but not others. Stretching poles (which they already have anyway) or tennis balls for stretching are OK; hula hoops and jumpropes are not. (I already know that Far Gym also locks the studio until 10 minutes before classes.)

But on the other hand, I kind of don't want to completely lock this one out of my decision just because of that one receptionist who I didn't like. This has more classes and more bathrooms than Close Gym does, and is cheaper, too. But I have never gotten such a chilly reception at any kind of gym or studio before.
was sleeping
-Say you're driving along a 40 or 50 kph road and you want to go to a convenience store or something on your right (or on your left, for USians and other people who drive on the right). So you'd have to cross a lane of traffic that's going 50 kph in the opposite direction, while people behind you are assuming that they can keep driving straight at 50 kph. If you just stop in the middle of the road and wait for a gap in the oncoming cars, all the cars behind you pile up and start honking, and maybe some of them try to pass you. What should you do?

-What if you're at a light and you want to make a right turn, and the light in front of you is green, but there's another light at the start of the road you want to make a right turn onto, and it's red. What do you do?

-Is there a polite way to signal when you know you want to take the next left that comes up, but you don't know when that's going to be?

-You're going 20 kph on a 30 kph road, because it's a 2-way road that's barely wide enough for 1 car, and there's a steep ditch right at the side, and it's dark and hard to see. The car behind you wants to pass you. What do you do?
5th-Nov-2014 12:43 am - license!
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I passed my written test! I now have a Japanese driver's license!!

The test is super-annoying. It's 95 T/F questions, but they are designed to be as difficult as T/F questions can possibly be. For instance, "It is dangerous to focus on one point when driving. Your gaze should drift everywhere." The answer? F. Reasoning: your gaze should not drift anywhere; you should be actively searching for dangers. Also, many of them ask about stuff that not just any driver would know, such as the different vehicle classifications, the types of licenses, and how to drive a motorcycle. The pass rate is about 70%.

Furthermore, it's only offered during the week, and only at 8:30 in the morning, in one of those places that's a 40 minute drive away but about 2 hours away by bus and train. I had to take a vacation day just to take the test, and be out the door by 6:30.

So all last week I've been studying, and yesterday I called up some friends and played Concentration with driving test information. (E.g, one card might say, "How many meters does a car moving at 20 kph go in one second?" And its match would say, "6 meters." This is not to be confused with the stopping distance [9 m]. I spent the day making those cards the day before yesterday.)

And I passed! I was one of the 25 who passed out of the 37 people to test today! I now have my first ever driver's license!
3rd-Nov-2014 07:40 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
I've finally gotten around to making a New Year's resolution for 2014.

Stop procrastinating so much.
2nd-Nov-2014 09:12 pm - work stuff
me frosting
Just the other day I had a class of elementary school students. I had to find something to do with "Where do you want to go?" and "I want to go to [country name]". There was even a list of countries in the textbook. I couldn't imagine that any of the kids would want to go to any of the countries they didn't already know about, so I got pictures of foods from each of the countries to show them, to help make their decisions.

Of course, preparing that list was really hard. The first country was Italy, and I open up Google and an hour later I'm still drooling over pictures of gelato and cannoli. France also took me an hour, because all the bloggers went, "What was good in France?? ... EVERYTHING."-- and then they list how rich the butter was and how good the bread was and what kinds of things go in a crepe and I kind of forget about my goal. So by the last countries on my list, I just grab the first thing that comes up, like for "Brazil desserts": that was this description of cartola (found at Street Smart Brazil), which is a deep-fried banana topped with slightly gooey cheese, cinnamon, and sugar.

Of course the kids go nuts for the food pictures. I showed them the deep-fried banana and they all go, "That looks so good!" I said, "Thanks. --Can you tell what it is?" "No, but it looks really good anyway!" And I explain what it is, and everyone goes "I want to try it!" (The ful mudammas was not so popular, but everyone already knows about the pyramids.) They all did play the game too, and for my last class, they wouldn't stop playing even when the bell rang. So I guess I can count this one as a success.


On a related note, today when I was coming home from shopping, there was a lady distributing leaflets at my apartment. "I do English classes for 4 and 5 year olds. Do you have any small children?" she asked me. "No, I don't," I said, "and I'm a native English speaker, so I'm afraid I wouldn't quite be in the market." "Oh! Are you Mark-sensei? Everyone in the area was talking about you! They say that you taught them about Halloween!" (Which I did; I played monster games and gave them candy.)
28th-Oct-2014 02:01 am(no subject)
was sleeping
There is a myth I've heard from many ALTs that Japanese people don't like foreigners and will always fail them on their driving test once or twice. (If you had a license in America, you can drive in Japan right away for a year with an international license, then you have to take a driving test, so most of my foreign friends took the test, and most of them had to take it 3 times.)

I asked one of my driving instructors about that, and he said, "Well, they probably don't know what's being tested. For instance, on your test, when you make a lane change, you have to check the rearview mirror, the side mirror, and then look over your shoulder, in that order. If they don't know that, they'll get points taken off, and there are a lot of places like that that they might not know. When I got my license for specialty vehicles (e.g. backhoes, construction vehicles, farm vehicles), I had to take the test six times."

One of the car salesmen I was talking to also mentioned something about tests, so I asked him, "Is it very hard to pass the driving test at the test center?" He said, "Absolutely! It's much easier to pass the test at a driving school. Those test centers are tough. People who go to the test center usually have to take it about 3 times before they pass!"
25th-Oct-2014 11:33 am(no subject)
was sleeping
I am right now nervously waiting for the results of my driving test. Last week I took it, and except for one or two oddly-timed yellows, everything was pretty smooth sailing until there was just one crosswalk that I didn't stop in time for, which means instant failure. So this time around I was a bundle of nerves for the whole test, and although I could stop for the aggressive pedestrians (and the normal ones too), everything else seemed really hard. Like, when you're the second in line at a light, and across from you there's a car that wants to make a right turn, do you let them through? Even stopping for a red light was awkward--I think I was almost rear ended once. I feel like if you fail once, you're more likely to fail again--it's been a week since I've even been in a car, and that was the day I failed the test the first time.

Edit: I passed!!! Now if I pass the written exam I'll get a license!!!
12th-Oct-2014 12:17 am - highway
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I drove on the highway today! I'd been looking forward to it/dreading it for weeks! Yesterday I talked with a bunch of people, and they all said that highways in Japan are a lot easier to drive on than American ones, because the top speed is generally only 100 kph, which is like 60 mph, plus the tolls in Japan are so high that they never get really crowded. But that's the kind of tip that I can never really believe until I see it for myself. And after the instructor directed me to the onramp, merging was simple. And then driving down the highway was a lot easier than driving down a street, since there are no awkward right turns, no parking lots that people are going into or out of, no people who run out into the street, just a big road to drive down fast. I thought that I'd have some sort of bizarre highway allergy, and I couldn't quite believe that I'd ever be the sort of guy who could drive on a highway, but once I was there, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

I was not really surprised that people kept passing me, since I never got above 85 (on a highway with a speed limit of 80) but the other kid, who drove after I did, drove a lot faster than I did, and even when he drove at 95 (same highway, same speed limit), people still passed him.
11th-Oct-2014 09:28 pm(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I had to be in a conference in Matsumoto yesterday When I was checking into the hotel, there was a guy who seemed to be having trouble communicating with the hotel staff. So I just interpreted for them. He had a simple question-- he and his wife weren't sure if they were staying 2 nights or just 1, when did they need to decide by? So I asked the hotel person, and translated the answer (by check-out time, 11 in the morning). It's just simple Japanese-- I would've been able to do that 8 years ago-- but I almost never get to use it to be helpful!
4th-Oct-2014 08:19 pm - Frustration!
was sleeping
I was just in a nice restaurant, and I ordered a set that comes with tea. But I didn't come quite early enough, because before I knew it the last bus home was leaving in 7 minutes. I told the waitress "My bus is leaving in 7 minutes.." and she goes, "got it. I'll get your tea right away.". "No, dont bring me tea!" I called after her, but it was too late. So she brings me this tea, but since the restaurant is not at the bus stop, I have to leave without tasting even a sip of it. Furthermore, that restaurant serves very good tea: toasty, fragrant, a bit floral. They normally charge ¥600 for it. What a waste to throw it away!
21st-Sep-2014 02:19 pm - JLPT and Tokyo
was sleeping
It's that time of year again: the grapes and pears are in the supermarkets, it's cold enough to wear a sweater, the fall is coming. This means it's time to take the JLPT again. This is the third year in a row I've taken the JLPT, so it's become a ritual for me. I suspect that even if I pass with flying colors this time, I'll find myself taking it again next year if I still live here. Why not? After all, another year probably would improve my score again.

This year I'm going to take it in Tokyo with a friend who lives nearby. He's going for the JLPT 2. I'm researching hotels again, because why not? I'll get to learn more about Tokyo this way.

Right now I'm checking out Shibuya hotels, because the test is in Tokyo University, and the train for Tokyo University leaves from Shibuya. I don't think I'll find one, because Shibuya is one of the hottest parts of Tokyo, but it's always worth a look. Anyway, half the hotels I call up have crazy expensive rates-- like $300 a night-- and the other half are love hotels that don't have rooms with 2 beds and charge by the hour. And even though it's almost 3 months away, a lot of the crazy expensive ones are already booked solid for December! That's Tokyo for you.
21st-Sep-2014 12:17 am - working out and cooking
forgot to sleep by amaralen
Someone just asked in thequestionclub, "How do you motive yourself to work out when you feel what's the point, always going to be chunky, have no one to impress, food is tasty." (Original post here.)

Here's my answer:

I'm going to start on a tangent, so bear with me here.

Are you curious about food? Like, maybe you read a menu and go, "Oooh! I want to try that! And that looks so good too! And that!" Or you go to a grocery store you've never been to and end up with a month's supply of food because everything looks so good? Maybe you read an article in a newspaper or a magazine, like, one about different kinds of salt, and go, "I want to try every one of those!" Or a new way to make chocolate cake, and think, "I've never tried it that way, but that sounds really good!"

That's how I think about workouts. Like, maybe you don't like just spinning the wheels of your exercise bike. I think of that like raw, washed, plain spinach. I have some friends who can do the exercise bike thing, and some who really enjoy plain spinach. I can't do either. And if spinning the wheels of an exercise bike is like raw spinach, some spinning classes are like spinach fried in bacon grease. There's a heck of a lot of ways you can rock an exercise bike-- just like there's a heck of a lot of really delicious things you can do with spinach!

If I take a class and it bores me, or if I plain don't like it, or can't handle it, I'm not sad, any more than I am when I try a yummy-sounding recipe or dish in a restaurant and it turns out kinda blah. It's probably just not your thing. Or maybe it's not your thing just yet, or maybe you don't like the instructor. Whatever. There are as many kinds of workouts as there are kinds of food-- you can't ever stop learning about them, or get tired.

Have you ever felt that weird feeling deep in your belly when you do Pilates? And felt like you were standing about three inches taller after the class? Or the blissed-out relax after a tough yoga class? How about splashing around in the pool-- with some air-filled dumbbells? See how much you could push your muscles on the weight machines, and enjoyed that rich sensation as you really worked them? Or the loose fluidity of Tai Ch'i? Found muscles you never knew about during a bellydance class? Maybe you like the scenery of biking through a mountain path?

My point is not just that there are lots of different kinds of workouts and there might be one you like. My point is, you can see the different body traditions of the world kind of like different kinds of food. Or different books, for that matter. Just like you can be like, "Ooh, that Shanghai-style braised pork belly sounds so delicious," you can say, "Ooh, Tai Ch'i sounds interesting." Trying the pork belly once doesn't mean that you must cook it every day for the rest of your life-- but if you like it, you've got another awesome dish you'll always be able to turn to. It's not a "I hope this one will finally work with me,"-- it's more like "I wonder what this one will be like?" You don't have to commit to anything, and you don't have to pick one. If you're not trying to slim down, all the better: you can just enjoy the workouts for the fun of it!
17th-Sep-2014 02:51 am - Mirror of Maybe thoughts
dark Harry from OoTP cover
I was just thinking about the Mirror of Maybe. I can't believe how important a fic it's become to me-- I'm not in the fandom at all anymore, but I still usually reread it at least once a year.  There's stuff both unbelievably compelling and incredibly irksome about it, and I want to try to put my finger on what's going on.

First, the bad. Read more...Collapse )


Now, another big issue with the fic: it's still not finished. Given how long ago the last chapter was posted, most people assume that it will never be finished. But let's think about what has to happen before the fic is done: Read more...Collapse )


So with these issues, why do I keep coming back to it? Read more...Collapse )
17th-Sep-2014 12:21 am(no subject)
was sleeping
I can't believe how much I don't get along with this driving instructor!

I have 4 driving instructors in my team, plus there are a few driving instructors who sometimes sub for teachers from all of the teams. All of them, except for this one, are grandfatherly types-- the youngest of them other than him is the father of one of my students, whereas this guy is maybe early 30s. But I swear, I freeze up as soon as I get into the car with him.

I can't do anything right. If I drive at 43 kph in a 40 zone, I'n going too fast. If I drive at 30 or even 35, I'm going too slow. If I accellerate and then it goes to 43 and I take my foot off the pedal and it goes back down to 37, my speed is varying too much. I'm taking lessons because I can't do it myself-- and none of the other instructors make me feel so shitty when they comment. This guy goes. "You're going too fast! *heavy sigh*".

Stoplights. You want to slow down a bit before you get to stoplight, right? Today at my first stoplight, I stopped fairly quickly before the light-- maybe 1 or 2 houses' lengths before the line. He snaps, "Brake well before the light!" So of course I stop accellerating long before all the other ones, and he goes , "No, accellerate!" Another heavy sigh.

Getting out of a stoplight. 40 kph zone. I go through the intersection slow, because I don't want to careen into something I didn't see. I accellerated slowly after that, because it was a narrow street, with a lot of places that cars might suddenly come out of, and it was so dark I couldn't see anything. He goes, "Accellerate, accellerate! Do you even understand the meaning of the word 'accellerate'?" Another heavy sigh.

Right turns. I don't start the car fast enough after the light turns green, I accellerate too fast when I start the car, and I turn the wheel too fast. All of these, he has mentioned many times that he has mentioned them many times.

Narrow streets: I go too fast, except when I go too slow, I don't know how to properly stay out of the way of bicycles and cars coming from the other direction at the same time, and I don't know how to properly turn into a parking lot. All of which he snaps, followed by heavy sighs.

I don't consider myself a bad driver yet, because I don't consider myself a driver yet. Calling me a bad driver would be like calling my students bad pastry chefs or bad at classical Arabic-- they've recieved no training, they have no idea what to do, they aren't even cooks at all (for the most part) or scholars of Arabic, it wouldn't be fair to call them bad pastry chefs. I intend to be working my way up to beginning driver, and then to good driver. This guy makes me feel like I'm already a really bad driver.

By the end of the hour, my nerves were totally shot and I was trying not to cry. He said that since I don't even get the fundamentals, like how to turn right, I need to drive for another hour on the school's closed course before I go out on the streets again-- which none of the other instructors have said. (Also, these hours are $50 each.) I get the sense that he doesn't want me in a car at all. I wish I could request not to have lessons with this guy.
8th-Sep-2014 12:29 am(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
Now that I have my provisional license, they let me go on roads now. I swear, the last time I did something simultameously as exciting and as terrifying as going 40 kph was when I interviewed for this job. It's so fast! And the steering of the modified Mazda Axela that I'd thought was so sluggish when we drove on the closed course suddenly felt super-responsive. Of course, the next day I had to drive at 60 kph, and then when I went back to a 40 kph road, I found myself doing 45 without even noticing it.

Also, I swear I need to buy a day-glo outfit ASAP. I guess I always assumed that drivers had some sort of secret view panel that they used when they drive at night, and I can't see a thing out the windows, but no, even from the driver's seat I could hardly see anything beside the lines on the road and the streetlights. We passed by a guy wearing a light blue shirt, and he was invisible until I was almost on top of him.

Also, I have no idea how to handle things when it's ambiguous whether you should go or let the other person go. Like, say you're driving by a store, and someone wants to get out. How do you know whether it's safer to let them out or to just drive by? Even when I had the right of way and someone coming from the opposite direction wanted to make a right turn, if they just made a right turn anyway, they could potentially crash into my car, and they were crawling by fast enough that I didn't feel safe going. Of course you have to go by when it's your turn, because otherwise everyone who wants to make a right turn will do it, and then you and everyone else behind you will miss the rest of the green light. But some people will make their right turn anyway, so you can't just go by at high speed. But then if you look like you're hesitating, people are more likely to do it. I don't understand this at all.

Anyway! I'm so happy that I'm finally doing this!
4th-Sep-2014 01:03 am(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I got my provisional license today! This means that if I'm in a car with controls on both sides, and someone who's had a license for more than 3 years is in the other side telling me what to do, and there are plates saying "PRACTICING" on the front and back bumper, I can drive on streets! This is about 1/3rd of the way to a real license! The written part of the test is 50 questions, and you have to get 90% right, and I got all 50 of them-- it only took me 2 tries!

In other news, I'm giving $50 to MSF. Yes, I still have $50,000 of student loans, but when the Ebola situation is this bad (not to mention that I have enough slack in my day-to-day budget to take driving lessons) you kind of have to.
21st-Aug-2014 08:03 am(no subject)
was sleeping
I'm taking the test for my temporary license on Saturday. If I get this, I'll be allowed to practice driving (with an instructor) on roads as well as in the driving school's closed course. I'm starting to freak out a bit, because there's a written test as well as a driving test. It's only T/F, but both times I took a practice test for it, I only scored 83% right (a pass is 90%). So I have to study, and that means going over the textbook a lot more. I can handle a sentence or even a page of it, but the book is over 300 pages long! I really have no idea how to approach it. When I try to read more than a couple of pages, my eyes just glaze over. I wish I'd studied and reviewed more after each class!
14th-Aug-2014 03:11 am(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I just saw Avril Lavigne! I was so sad when I missed her whole tour earlier in the year, but she came back! The venue was small, a bit bigger than half of the school gym, all standing, which got very sardiney, and the amplification was a bit wonky, so sometimes her voice got a bit swallowed up by the guitars. Also, she used no interpreter, so sometimes I wished I could shout out a translation of what she was saying. Whatever. The concert was amazing, and even if most of the people couldn't understand a word she was saying, everyone was with her. I'm so glad she made it back here!

Tomorrow I see Lady Gaga. I love summer vacation.
4th-Aug-2014 06:30 pm - tomato ice cream
me frosting
Tomato ice cream seems to be a thing this summer. I first saw Haagen-Dasz Tomato and Cherry a few months ago and tried it then. My verdict: Sure, tomato is a fruit, and no one thinks, say, raspberry-flavored ice cream is weird, so why not tomato ice cream? I thought it worked well with the cherry flavor. The problem was, they'd clearly used tomato paste, which made it taste a bit flat. But the concept has been taken up by all of the little local gelato places, and their tomato-flavored gelato is usually very fresh and full-tasting, just like you'd expect a nice mango or plum-flavored ice cream to be. only with tomato as the fruit. I'm not sure yet if I like it or not.
3rd-Aug-2014 02:16 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
A go-playing friend called me up yesterday morning. We had the following conversation:

Him: Can you help me out at the festival tonight? We'll be setting up starting at about 3:00.
Me: I'm really sorry! I'm taking a driving course, and I won't get back until 8:30.
Him: OK, never mind, then.

I spent the rest of the day thinking, "Dammit, I could be teaching go at the festival! That would be so much fun!"

I got to the festival just as it was wrapping up, and there were only a few vendors left. Of course, I lined up for takoyaki, and plenty of my students stopped to say hello. I asked a few of them if they saw an old man who was teaching go, but none of them had.

Finally, I spotted him-- or rather, he spotted me-- while I was in line for a crepe. He was selling grilled squid.

Me: What's going on? Weren't you going to teach go?
Him: No, I was going to sell grilled squid! If you had some time, I thought you might help out.
Me: Not to sell grilled squid!
Him: Hey, that's a pretty good idea. We should teach go at this festival next year!
1st-Aug-2014 11:12 pm - things making me happy right now
forgot to sleep by amaralen
School's out for the next few weeks for me, and I'm really happy. Here's why:

-I've just signed up for an intensive summer course at a local driving school! It was a lot of money, and my parents could've taught me for free 14 years ago. But 14 years ago I was pretty sure that I wanted nothing to do with cars: they pollute, the roads are bad for wildlife and for the water table, sprawl is innefficient for electricity as well as global warming, etc. But swearing to have nothing to do with cars when you're 14 is kind of like swearing to be a vegan when you've never read an ingredients list (e.g, milk in bread and chocolate, gelatin in candies, etc.) Every year I've not driven, I've been driven: friends and family have driven me pretty much everywhere. And although there may be some places where you really don't need to drive, I don't live there. I know of dozens of places that take hours to get to via public transit, if accessible at all, that are only a 20 minute drive away. (I'm thinking right now of the movie theater, the gym, a paragliding place, a restaurant that uses only mushrooms, some mountains, and a go club, and that's only the places I know right now OTOH.) And I remember how tough it was job-hunting without a car; there are so many places that you just can't even consider.

So today was my first day of classes, and having a trained instructor who has a brake pedal on his side of the car, plus knowing that the cost covers all insurance for all damage, just helps you relax so much! I still have no idea where the edges of the car are-- at one point, where I was sure we were straddling the crosswalk, he had me lean out the window and see that there was over a meter and a half left. I am also right now very very bad at using the steering wheel, and the accellerator frankly terrifies me. (And I'm so glad it's not a manual!) But I still have time to learn! I'm so happy to finally be learning!

-Also, Lady Gaga will be coming to Chiba in a few weeks. I waited by the ticket vending machine in the convenience store for the minute the tickets went on sale, so I'm going.

-Also, Avril Lavigne will be doing a mini-tour of the country. I was so sad when she came by a few months ago, and I only heard after it was too late, but she's coming back! And I could get a ticket! It's all-standing, which sucks, but the place is only about as big as a high school gym, so I am thrilled that I was able to get the ticket.
2nd-May-2014 04:03 am(no subject)
was sleeping
I swear I am more surprised every time I browse a shelf of books translated into Japanese from the English. I can't believe how many books have made it over!

All the teachers in the school have to write a 2-line blurb about one of the books in the library. This means that I needed to go and thoroughly check out their foreign section. (I've read many books in Japanese, but my all-time favorite books are still almost all English.) I'd never done that before-- I'll borrow a Japanese book, sure, but I usually prefer to read English books in the original English.

The foreign section is three 2-meter long bookshelves, front and back. If it were one set of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves it would be some nine meters long. That's huge-- way more books than I own. They have plenty of obvious classics (Harry Potter, all of the Narnia books, some Christopher Robin). Also a lot of my favorites: all of the Earthsea books, the His Dark Materials series, even about six Meg Cabot books. (The librarian said that most of the girls knew Meg Cabot.) Then there were a bunch of books that I'd sure enjoyed, but was still a bit surprised to see in translation: Hoot and Scat, Lionboy (the librarian said that that one was popular about ten years ago), Artemis Fowl. Not only Treasure Island but also The Bottle Imp.

I always feel like the trade is a bit unfair: there are plenty of Japanese authors who are at least as popular in Japan as Carl Hiassen is in America. Most people have probably read a couple of Higashino Keigo books even if they aren't big mystery readers. Every woman in the country knows Hayashi Mariko. You don't need to be big into sports books to read Asano Atsuko, either. Tsujimura Mizuki's story about a medium was made into a popular movie, as was part of one of Onda Riku's supernatural mystery series. A bunch of my kids like Yamada Yusuke, though I don't much like his brand of gross-out humor. But hands up anyone who doesn't know Japanese who knows any of these authors. Granted, the only author in this list who tends to write books classified as middle-grade here is Asano Atsuko, as opposed to, debatably, every English book listed above. But I'd be surprised to see translations of any of them in a library in America, and certainly not in a one-room school library.

When I found the collection of Diana Wyne Jones translations, I just stopped looking. They have all three Howl books, all six Chrestomancis, and even Hexwood and A Tale of Time City. My middle school library in America didn't even have all of those! (Please ignore that when I was in middle school there were only two Howl books and four Chrestomanci ones.) The only question is which: most of them know the Miyazaki film that shares a title with Howl's Moving Castle but not the actual book; and as an introduction to the Chrestomanci books, I can't decide whether I prefer the one written earlier (Charmed Life) or the one set earlier (The Lives of Christopher Chant). I am currently rereading those three in an attempt to decide.
7th-Mar-2014 05:25 pm - Graduation etc
was sleeping
A lot of the things here that seem weird to me are weird to me not because I'm in Japan, but because I'm in a school. I suspect that graduations are one of those things; I've never been to an American graduation, so I wouldn't know.

Anyway, a Japanese middle school graduation is like an American high school graduation in that it marks the end of mandatory education, and high school, for those who choose to apply, is the first place you have to fight to get into. (Entrance exams are pretty brutal.) And a graduation here requires about two weeks of practices and preparations.

There was such a practice today. The assistant vice principal explained to everyone how to stand up, how to bow (at the moment that he says"bow" or else when someone on the stage bows to them, held to a count of two), and where to look. Then there was song practice, because they have to sing the school song and the graduation song.

It's hard to explain the atmosphere even at the practice-- super strict, super formal, happy and sad as graduations are, but with an undercurrent of highly repressed hilarity. It's just do formal that some people just end up laughing. Imagine a workshop where the instructor tells everyone to make their bodies into a square. Then imagine he tries to make everyone more square: "You, tuck your head in more! You, make your torso wider! You, make your butt more cornery!". Of course people would end up laughing.

Naturally, laughing is strictly prohibited at the graduation itself.
6th-Mar-2014 10:03 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
It's super embarrassing that I should mess up on chocolate chip cookies with such a simple mistake, but I think I figured it out. I reread the recipe (the Martha Stewart version of Toll House cookies), and converted everything into metric and weights. (I could've saved a lot of time if I'd just googled "metric chocolate chip cookies" instead! But FYI, the amount is 115 g unsalted butter, 150 g light brown sugar, 1 egg, 5 ml vanilla, 2.5 ml salt, 1.25 ml baking soda, 140 g flour, and 150-170 g chocolate, and if you make it into 30 cookies you will bake them at 170 for a scant 10 minutes. But I know you all knew that.)

Anyway, I was rereading the Martha recipe, and saw she called for all-purpose flour. Now, on Monday, I used cake flour, because that was what my friend had, and I wanted to try it. But of course a recipe that needs the chew and density from gluten won't work with cake flour! Alton Brown even goes farther, and says you should just use bread flour, though I didn't know that then.

So I went to the supermarket, intent on buying AP flour. It was really hard! Most of the flour was cake flour. There were probably some 15 types of flour, and I swear, I thought I looked at all of them (yielding 14 thin-strength flours, eg cake flour, and 1 strong-strength, eg bread flour) before I gave up and asked an attendant.

"All-purpose flour? What's that?" she said.

"It's stronger than cake flour but not as strong as bread flour," I said. (In fact I'd only learned the word myself, literally "middle strength flour" from a friend the previous day; I hadn't known that Japan even had it.)

"Let's see," she said, and started going through the same shelves I'd just examined. About 5 minutes later, after asking me if 2 different brands of cake flour were OK, she unearths 1 small bag, which had "middle strength flour" clearly written on it in small letters.

I bought the flour, and using my landlady's assistance (and kitchen scale), I made chocolate chip cookies. Her oven is very small, so I baked them 4 at a time, but they came out absolutely perfect: golden outside, chewy inside, you can taste the vanilla and brown sugar and salt.

I think I shouldn't be surprised at the proportion of soft flours to hard flours in the supermarket. The traditional Japanese food that everyone makes using flour is tempura, and for that you not only want a very soft flour, you might even add some rice flour to increase the starch content even more and make the perfect crispy crunch. And tempura is definitely an everyday thing. They also might use flour for croquettes, for breading meat, and of course for cakes. But that's it. Pretty much no one makes bread. And even I can't think of much of anything other than this that really requires AP flour. Maybe I should've just got bread flour.


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4th-Mar-2014 01:29 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Today was the last day I visit the 6th graders at the local elementary school before they come up to my middle school, so I was asked to explain a little bit about middle school English for them. The sentence I'd been asked to practice with them in the lesson part of the class was "What do you want to be?" and its answer, "I want to be a _____." (FYI, _____ is usually spelled ~ in Japanese. It has many pronunciations in Japanese, but if I'm speaking English, I pronounce it "blah blah blah". Also FYI, Japanese elementary school students and middle school students think the word "blah blah blah" is hilarious.)

Anyway, I started by asking them, "OK, how many of you thought that this was super-easy? How about how many of you thought it was kind of hard? It's OK if you did. Here's another question. You will study this sentence in middle school, but what year? Do you think you'll study it when you're a 7th grader? When you're an 8th grader? A 9th grader?"

The answer is they don't do it again until fairly late in 8th grade, because in middle school, the hope is there's less plain memorizing of target sentences and more actually understanding the grammar that goes on in them. The sentence "What do you want to be?" is a bit complicated if you break it down, and they don't cover the parts until well into their second year. Most of the students could read the first two sentences of the middle school textbook when I wrote them on the board. ("I am Sakura. You are Becky.")

Anyway, my schpiel was about 10 minutes long, and I swear I could see eyes glazing over from the very beginning. In the end, there were only 2 questions: "Is there English homework?" (To my "Yes, you have to write one page a day in English, and you can just copy the textbook if you want, but I promise you it's also really good practice to make up your own sentences!" I saw a number of horrified looks.) And, "How many hours a week do we have English class?" I saw more horrified looks when I said, "4 hours." I do hope that my effort to make middle school English less scary was not counterproductive!


Also. I am feeling like a cookie failure now. I promised all the students on my first day here that I would make them chocolate chip cookies someday, and as a representative of America in a country where good chocolate chip cookies are a rarity, I feel like this is a good idea at least as much now. The vice principal said that I could not make them for the students, because of liability issues, but he had no problems with a local baker making them. The local baker was fine with making them, but given that most Japanese people have no idea what properly gooey-in-the-middle American chocolate chip cookies are like, he asked me to make him an example first and bring it to him along with the recipe. So I made chocolate chip cookies at a friend's house today, and I swear I followed the right recipe, the one that's on the back of every bag of chocolate chips in America (only I chopped up some nice 48% French chocolate myself here), and they just didn't come out right. They were fine, they both said they were delicious, but they just didn't have that proper chew to them. They came out fluffy/bready instead of having that almost candylike quality they should. I can't imagine what went wrong-- too much baking soda? Wrong kind of brown sugar? Not enough butter? (4 ounces is 112 grams, right?) I don't think I can bring these to him, because tasting these, you probably wouldn't understand what the fuss is about.
24th-Feb-2014 12:05 am(no subject)
was sleeping
Do not ask me why on Earth I thought today would be a good day to go to the gym.

My city has a few gyms, and the closest one is a place about an hour and a quarter's walk away if you walk very fast. (Google says it's about 7.5 km.) I see it from the bus every time I go downtown. The buses aren't running regularly yet because of the blizzard last week, and I think it's silly to take a bus to save an hour's walk if your goal is to work out anyway. And the sidewalks where I live are all traversible if not clear. Plus it's been a long time since I've taken a yoga class.

I called them up this afternoon to ask them about rates and hours, and they said that they were open until 10:30. So I put on my walking shoes and headed out. The sidewalks were all not too bad in my part of town-- sometimes they were deep valleys cut into mountains of snow taller than me, sometimes they were that funny lumpy icy-snowy mix that you get when there was a couple of inches of snow left before it got trodden on and refrozen, often there was a completely clear path about a foot wide. I can't walk at my usual pace there, but I can walk.

About half an hour in, I hit a couple of patches of black ice, but again, a little black ice is OK if you walk carefully and you know to look for it. But I should have turned around as soon as I hit it, because from there on, the sidewalks got steadily worse and worse. There were still patches of clear, but there were also places where you had to either trudge through a foot of snow or walk in the street. There were a number of places where you had to walk in the street, because not only were the sidewalks completely unshovelled, they were blocked by five-foot-high snowbanks. There were places where it looked like the sidewalk was clear, but then the path disappeared after 60 feet or so, so you had to backtrack to get to the crosswalk to walk on the other side of the street. (This was a busy road; crossing it at dusk while wearing black was not an option.) By that point I kept up, because I knew I was so close, and I thought it would be so silly to get so close and then turn around. And if nothing else, the gym should have a place where I could wait for a taxi.

Finally, about two hours after setting off on what should've been a 1-hour walk, I arrived-- at an empty parking lot. The gym was closed. Nothing was lit up either. I called them again, but of course there was no answer. I could've sworn that the guy on the phone said that they were open until 10:30, and that weekdays they were upen until 12:30, and their day off was Thursday. I was absolutely positive of this. But it was absolutely, unquestionably closed.

I did remember, though, that there was a very good restaurant in that part of town. I went there with my coworkers a few months ago; it was the place where I had the first meat I had after quitting vegetarianism. It's just off the main street, so I would never have found it if I hadn't been there before, but I knew exactly where it was.

I was the only customer; the owner was watching a cooking show. He said that because of the snow, no one wanted to come out. He also said that at this time of year, almost none of the vegetables he normally grows are in season-- only bok choy from his fields and carrots from his friend's field. He said he had to buy the rest of the vegetables. Now, like any self-respecting white person, I go a little gooey when I hear that the farm where the vegetables come from is connected to the restaurant. I asked him how he cooks bok choy, and he mentioned boiled tofu. The dish is simply vegetables and tofu boiled in water until the vegetables are tender. Then you dip them in citron vinegar flavored with soy sauce, scallions, and grated daikon. So I just ordered that.

It was very good.

Then I took a cab back and swore I'd confirm the hours at least three times before trying for that gym again.
18th-Feb-2014 02:04 pm - Really, Nagano?
was sleeping
We just had a staff meeting. The verdict? The buses still can't handle the streets, but it's not ok to have 3 snow days. (Snow days here are just school csncellation; graduation will still be march 17th no matter what. Spring break is only 1 week anyway, and the teachers are all busy then.) So they're having school as normal. The kids who normally come by bus will be driven by their parents. Teachers are on the phones calling up the parents to explsin that as I type this. The students will not be penalized if they are late or absent. Also, this wasn't decided early enough to tell the place that makes school lunch, so lunch tomorrow will be just rice. The strangest part? The buses may not run for the rest of the week, because this part of Nagano really doesn't get much snow. They'll just do the same thing.

In Boston, buses probably could run a couple days after a big storm like this. But if they couldn't, schools would just be shut down for as long as it takes. I really don't get this.


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17th-Feb-2014 06:55 pm - snow
was sleeping
It is now Nagano's turn to get a lot of snow. Nagano is indeed famous for mountains and snow, but I live in a valley in between mountains. The mountains usually catch all the snow before it can get here, so even though it gets cold, we don't usually get much snow.

Until Saturday, that is. This Saturday, the skies opened up, and 70 cm came down. That's about two feet. It's tall enough so that people had to carve little paths through it. The snowdrifts are taller than I am.

Naturally, the whole city shut down. I was scheduled to give a speech, but it was cancelled, because no one could get to the venue. I went to the supermarket, being incredibly grateful that there was one within a few hundred meters of me (it only took me two or three times longer than normal to get there) and it was a total warzone inside-- absolutely nothing left. No fresh vegetables, not even cabbage, only a few packs of strawberries left, almost no natto, no tofu, no onigiri, no baked goods-- massive bare shelves, since everyone had got terrified and bought everything, and the trucks couldn't get there to restock.

I was fairly sure when I went to bed yesterday that in the morning, I'd get a call saying that it was a snow day, but no such call came, so I went to school at the normal time. Thankfully, most of the sidewalks already had paths carved out, so I was able to get to school. When I got there, all of the teachers were outside, with shovels.

It turned out that today was a snow day for the students. My city never gets this much snow, so the roads were pretty much undriveable, and the buses were deemed unsafe. This doesn't matter for the teachers, though; we are contractually obligated to either come to school or use vacation days. Road conditions were so bad that some teachers ddin't get to school until 9:30 (their contracts say 8:00). When they did, I clapped and cheered for them with the rest of the teachers by the gate. The work that needed to be done was clearing the snow so that the students would be able to come tomorrow. Hence everyone out there with shovels.

As is, tomorrow is the same: they decided at about noon that the buses still wouldn't be safe tomorrow, so it's another snow day for the students, and teachers are welcome to take one of their vacation days. I can't very well take a vacation day, because I've already taken a lot, and I'll take more when I travel during the spring break (that's a week between the semesters when the students do not come to school but the teachers must take vacation days if they want the time off).

I am somewhat grateful for the snow day. I have 4 elementary school visits next week that I'm barely prepared for at all, and this does give me more time to get ready for them. But I do wish that after I finish the work, I'd be allowed to come home!
13th-Feb-2014 02:41 am(no subject)
was sleeping
So working as an assistant English teacher means a lot of things, but you know what the biggest part of my job is? Making trivia quizzes. Now, I can tell you the fastest bird, the biggest animals, the distance to outer space, and the length a chromosome would be if you unwound it. I know what animal is as long as your intestines are (killer whales, at about 6-10 meters), and whether paper clips or locomotives were invented first. (Locomotives by a good 50 years. Crazy, right?)

My first-year students are doing "When can we...?" and "Where can we...?", so I made a trivia quiz for them. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In France; B: In Italy; C: In America." The Social Studies teacher assured me that they didn't know, so I went with that question, but it was way too easy; everyone knew. So right now I'm revising it to make it harder. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In Liguria; B: In Lazio; C: In Sicily."

Btw, I was a bit surprised that everyone in that first class knew exactly when Frozen opens in this country (March 14th--Japan, why do you make me wait so long??) but that no one knew when the new live-action version of Kiki's Delivery Service opens.

It's really hard to do things like this, because nothing is ever singular enough, and everyone already knows all the really unique things. Everyone knows where the Easter Island heads are, for instance. I thought about "Where can we eat goat's head?" except it turns out that there are many cuisines all over the world wheere goat's head is a delicacy. Black sand beaches exist in Hawaii, California, New Zealand, and Iceland.
8th-Feb-2014 04:37 am(no subject)
was sleeping
So the super-nasty JLPT I was whining about the other day? I got the result yesterday. I got 68.3% right. The passing score is 67%. I squeaked by.

I'm super-happy about this: JLPT1 is a really great level to be at. It means that you more or less have the Japanese skills of a Japanese high school freshman. It is a minimum requirement for many jobs.

But even though I'm relieved, and happy, I'm not as happy as I thought I would be. Yes, I now have a nice shiny certificate, but I know exactly where my Japanese ability sucks. I know I can't read faster than I speak even for easy things, and for newspapers, not even that fast. I struggle with news reports or even following a conversation if there's more than about two other people. I know lots of kanji, but there's still plenty of very common ones that I don't know. Having the certificate that says that I'm more or less at this level doesn't change those.

Since I do have the certificate, I'm not going to take the test again in the summer. I'll take it again in December, a year after I took it last. Even if I don't do much vocab drilling or practice tests, I can study by watching movies and reading books too. I expect that my score should be higher in a year.
24th-Jan-2014 02:16 am - gratuitous random info
was sleeping
I'm doing comparatives with my 2nd-years, and this year I'm making a quiz so they can practice. Sample question and answer: "Which is colder, the North Pole or the South Pole?" Right answer: "The South Pole is colder than the North Pole."

For this quiz, I got a table of metal melting points, so I could make questions like this: "Which is hotter, red-hot platinum or lava?" (Btw, this sort of question requires pictures, because they don't know "lava", "platinum" [which I chose because the Japanese for it sounds alike ("platina")], or "red-hot".)

I remembered this xkcd What If, which says that liquid tungsten is so hot that if you dropped some of it into molten lava, the lava would freeze the tungsten. I thought that that was so cool! But looking at that table, I see that that is true for many much more commonplace metals. Molten lava would freeze molten iron, steel, platinum, silicon, nickel, titanium, and iridium. Depending on the type of lava, it might also freeze copper. People work with temperatures far hotter than the 700-1200 C that lava is at every day.
16th-Jan-2014 10:35 pm(no subject)
me frosting
I was having dinner with some friends at a local greasyspoon (being non-vegetarian is so convenient!) when I got a call from the manager of a local grocery store. I'd been craving a Twix, and although you can get Snickers in every grocery store and every convenience store in the country. I haven't been able to find Twix even in massive Tokyo international groceries. So a couple hours before, I'd asked the manager if he could order some for me. He was calling me back to let me know he'd called the company, and it turns out that Twix aren't distributed in Japan.

I told my friends this, and described Twix, and they said, "Go to Riverville's. They make all kinds of confections, and he'll probably be able to make some for you." (I am taking the liberty of translating Japanese names here.) Riverville is the name of a local confectioner, and he has his own shop. I'd even herd the name before; another local friend had recommended them, and the name had also come up when teachers were talking about local places to buy goodies.

So today after school I googled the place, and it turns out it's only about a five-minute walk away from my apartment. I've even almost walked past it-- it was just aroound the corner from an intersection I've walked by many times.

I walk in, and the first thing I notice is the smell-- the warm, toasty smell you get when you bake cookies that have a lot of butter. You can't fake it, and the shop is permeated. To my left is a display of beautifully formed traditional Japanese bean confections, dyed an array of colors and in an assortment of shapes; in front is a table piled high with pre-wrapped cookies, slices of cake, and dorayaki (sweetened bean-filled pancakes). In front is a refrigerated display case filled with the most gorgeous cakes-- chocolate mousse, mont blanc, some red globes, many others-- and to the right of that display case was another one filled with chocolates.

A bunch of people were making things in the back, but one of them came out as soon as I stepped in the door. I asked him if he could make Twix for me, and he couldn't. But I am not the kind of person who can easily walk out of a shop like this empty-handed. I asked him about the chocolates, if they select a different kind of chocolate for each kind of truffle. They do. Thye had green tea and white chocolate, Earl Grey and milk chocolate, lavender honey and dark chocolate, praline, framboise, orange, and a few others. He had me at "Earl Grey"-- that might just be my very favorite flavor for a truffle, and I haven't had it since college.

I asked what the buttery smell was, and they were baking green tea financiers. Financiers are a type of cookie that I have never even made. He also explained to me all of the cakes: the red domes were straberry mousse atop a cake made with ground pistachios, and what looked like a plain chocolate mousse was actually Earl Grey-infused chocolate mousse around a core of Earl Grey and vanilla flavored creme brulee. They had buttercream-filled French macaroons in many varieties (lemon, strawberry, chocolate, coffee caramel, and black tea) and they even had a type of pie filled with caramel and nuts that he said might be a bit similar to the Twix.

I only got a few things-- if I bought everything I wanted there I knew I'd spend hundreds of dollars and eat myself sick. The Earl Grey truffle was a tiny little one-bite morsel, but the ratio of chocolate to cream on the inside was a not-quite-gooey perfect, the tea and milk chocolate flavors balanced perfectly, and the shell wispy thin and instantly melt-in-your-mouth. (It is difficult to get a chocolate coating so delicate; I can't do it. Heck, I can't even temper chocolate on my own.) The nut pie was vaguely, vaguely reminiscent of a Twix-- the caramel filling was about the same consistency, maybe a bit stiffer, but you could taste the not-quite-burnt sugar and the butter that went into it, and the crust was the kind of brown and flaky you get when you use a lot of butter, you are careful to leave some of it in large chunks, and you bake the whole thing in a perfectly super-hot oven.

His things are expensive, but they are worth it. I can tell what sort of work went into making them. My only regret is that I didn't discover the place sooner! I've been living here for over a year now, and this was my first visit! I don't think I can ever go to any of the other sweets shops, or ever buy them from the grocery store, ever again.
1st-Jan-2014 12:46 pm - Happy New Year, Japanese style
forgot to sleep by amaralen
"It is a happy thing that the new year has dawned. Please treat me well this year too."

That's a super-literal translation of two of the set phrases people say to each other in Japan around this time of year. (Oh, and you bow after saying it.) A better translation would probably be just "Happy new year!"

New Year's is the biggest holiday in Japan-- something like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. All the stores shut down for New Year's day, many of them shut down for three days or a week after, it's one of the only breaks I have from school, and the supermarkets were all war zones yesterday. Most people spend New Year's Eve with their families, but many people do what is called a ninen mairi, or a year-spanning visit to a shrine. If you visit a shrine on New Year's Eve, it counts as two visits, one for each year, hence the literal meaning, "two-year visit."

I got to the park with the shrine nearest to my house at about 11:30. The streets were totally deserted; it was like a ghost town. I knew I was on the right track when I saw a bonfire on top of the hill, but when I got to the top I saw less than a dozen high school kids and no one else. Something must be wrong, I thought. Where are the crowds? The food? When I lived in Nagoya, I did a ninen mairi to a local temple, one that was maybe a fifteen-minute walk away from the international dorm I lived in. There was a long avenue of food vendors. I remember having mitarashi dango, literally handwashing dango, which so called because they are sold at shrines and temples, where you perform a ritual handwashing, and the sauce is made with lots of sugar and soy sauce. I remembered waiting with a massive crowd of locals, and just around midnight, I was one person who helped pull a rope that would ring a bell once of 108 times.

I was standing around awkwardly, wondering if I'd made a mistake and should just go home, when one of the kids said, "It's Mark-sensei!"

"Yes, it's me. I came here to do a ninen mairi. Where is everyone?"

"They'll come here soon," they said. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, people started arriving. One of the other teachers from the school greeted me and said, "Please treat me well again next year," which is what you say before midnight. I asked her precisely how you do a shrine visit, and she said that she wasn't clear on the details either. I think you bow twice, clap twice, then bow one more time, throw your money into the collection bin, and ring the bell, but I don't remember the sequence. The teacher's daughter wanted to do it again, but the teacher told her to wait until after midnight. So we waited by the bonfire, and meanwhile a few other students had also wished me a happy new year, and another local lady who I know who was waiting in line told me the correct sequence of a shrine visit (although I have since forgotten it again). She also told me you can actually go inside the shrine.

By midnight, the line had become a fifteen-minute wait. I performed the sequence, probably wrong, and stepped inside. You could make an offerring inside the shrine itself-- they gave you ritual leaves for that purpose-- and gave you a few sips of sake.

One the way out, I was spotted by some more students, who said, "It's Mark-sensei!"

"Yes, it is me. I came here to do a ninen mairi. Please treat me well this year too."

Them: "What did you wish for?"

Me: "You're supposed to wish for something?"

"You didn't wish for anything? What a waste!"

Their mother explained, "Normally you make a wish when you visit a shrine like this, like "May I have good health this year," or "May I meet someone special this year.""

Anyway, happy 2014!
16th-Dec-2013 01:22 am - JLPT again
was sleeping
This summer, on the advice of mousapelli and deralte, I took the JLPT2. Since I passed, I took the JLPT1 too this winter.

I have never taken a test so hard. The problem wasn't the kanji. I'd thought you'd needed to know all 2136 daily use kanji, but the 1800 or so I knew were more than enough. There were only about 10 questions that asked for the pronunciation of the kanji anyway-- they expect you to be more or less past that level by the time you go for the JLPT1,

Most of the vocab questions gave a word, then gave four sentences using that word, and asked which sentence used it the best. Fine for some words, but if it's the kind of word that you'd just kind of grok by context, then you fail. You need to know lots of words that are made by the kanji, not just the kanji and a few of the common words it's used in. To give an English equivalent example, if English were spelled with kanji, the words host (all 4 meanings), hostess, hotel, hostel, hospital, hospitable, would all include the same kanji, and for JLPT1, you have to know all of them.

Next, the reading section: any of the individual questions wouldn't be too hard.
What is the irony that the author refers to in the third paragraph?
What does the author most want to say?
If Sally already has her own seeds, which gardening class should she take?
Which sentence best fits into the blank?


The problem was that there were just way too many reading sections and way too many questions. Given unlimited time, I'd probably have been able to do OK on that (though the vocabulary level, not the kanji, still would have made things a bit difficult), but within the time limit, it was absolutely impossible. I left three questions blank and had to guess on a lot of questions anyway.

The listening section started with easy things, stagey-sounding dialogs, and you had time to read the multiple-choice questions. Then they only asked the questions at the beginning of the skits instead of letting you read them. Then they only asked the questions at the end of the skits. Then the skits switched from skits to TV broadcast jabbermouth speed monologues, and I totally lost it.

Anyway, I will be very surprised if I passed. I'm now studying more to take it again in the summer.
15th-Dec-2013 05:01 pm - ex-vegetarian
was sleeping
I feel incredibly silly that I never mentioned it here when I went vegetarian in the spring of 2010, but I'm mentioning it now. I stopped eating meat 10 years after reading Diet for a Small Planet, which explains how much feed it requires to raise even a little meat, and 1 year after finding a recipe for dal, which finally let me cook a whole meal without using any meat. If I were still in America, maybe I'd still be a vegetarian.

But being a vegetarian in Japan is about as difficult as it might have been in America in the 1950's. Or gluten-free in maybe 1980, after people started adding gluten to yogurt and slim-jims but before anyone had ever heard of gluten. They use so much, it's invisible. They have no idea how much of it they eat.

I had intended to at least make the concession for shaved katsuo bushi (flakes of a certain type of cured, dried tuna), because they are used in about 95% of Japanese cooking. But my first day in Nagano, I had soba, which are buckwheat noodles you dip into a broth that includes a lot of katsuo. I could not believe how rotten and vile it tasted to me-- I could tell that there was lots of meat in that broth, and it had rotted for months. (It takes about 6 months for the katsuo to dry out fully, I later learned.) So I figure, if it's bad for the environment, and I don't want to eat it anyway, why bother?

I ended up eating a lot of things made with katsuo bushi or related fish things anyway. For instance, a dish I ordered at a bar called "smashed cucumber and plum", was smashed cucumber and sour pickled plum drizzled with soy sauce and covered generously with those shaved flakes. Pretty much any time I visited a friend's house, I'd be served miso soup. (It did taste rotten and fishy to me for the first several months.) Boiled vegetables are either boiled in a katsuo broth or soaked in one afterwards. Pickles and salads are sprinkled with the flakes.

Side note: if you have not eaten meat in over two years, katsuo bushi taste as bad as week-old roadkill smells. If you are Japanese, it tastes delicious, somewhat like chicken broth but with a fishy tang. If you have not eaten meat in over two years but are gradually getting accustomed to katsuo, it tastes more baconey than bacon, more chickeny than chicken, and more fishy than tuna. In the quantities that many of them use it in, it still tastes rotten to me.

Anyway, I finally decided about a week ago to just not worry about it. Being a meat-eater doesn't mean I have to eat meat every single day. But it would mean I could go out with friends easily, and I'd be able to go to Japanese places instead of Indian ones. It means I'd be able to get more than two or three recipes out of every cookbook I buy. It means I could have soba, which Nagano is famous for. It means that when I visit a friend's house, I can quiz her about the food she's prepared out of curiosity rather than suspicion. And if I travel, I will be able to eat easily in meat-loving countries such as China, France, or Italy, and honestly enjoy everything they have to offer.

I was not sufferring brain fog or thinning hair or weakness (any more than is normal for a night-owl who has to get up in the morning) or cravings. I swear I have never, ever craved bacon or hamburgers. I'm doing this for cultural reasons: it's so I can get along better with the people around me and the country in which I live.

So last Friday, there was a semi-formal work party at a nice restaurant. This almost always means massive amounts of meat, so whenever possible I called ahead and ask them to make me something specially with no meat and no fish and no shellfish. (The word for "meat" does not include fish, and shellfish are not fish either, so I had to specify all of them. The usual reply was, "Fine, but we can't cook without katsuo.") This time I only asked them to leave out the shrimp, because shrimp have the highest bycatch rates, and the beef, because beef has the worst feed ratio. I told this to the assistant vice principal beforehand, so right when food was served, he said, "Mark has an important announcement to make."

"Yes. I've given up vegetarianism. I'm going to eat everything." Massive applause all around. A few people asked for the reason; a few people congratulated me on finally being willing to learn about Japan's food culture.

Pretty much everything that was served had meat in some form. Slices of sashimi, raw tuna as soft and delicious as can be. Oysters baked with butter and garlic. Whole deep-fried shishimon, salty and fishy and somewhat crispy on the outside, and you couldn't even tell there were bones. Raw red spinach, tossed with crispy chicken skin and the rendered fat. Soup with bok choy, ramps, fish, and pork meatballs. Everything was so good! I can't believe I've lasted this long!

I don't intend to eat meat every day. But for every once in a while, I was missing out on so much!
28th-Oct-2013 11:51 pm(no subject)
was sleeping
I finally got rid of all the dressing bottles in the school refrigerator.

Lunch is served at all of the schools every day: there is always rice, a soup (either a clear soup with vegetables or miso soup), a meat dish, like a piece of fish, and a vegetable dish (which is often mixed with fish). I happen to be a vegetarian now-- not the easiest choice in Japan, which is probably the most fish-obsessed country in the world. But it means that I cannot have school lunch, so I bring my own. And since salads wilt, I keep a bottle of salad dressing in the staffroom fridge. Then, when there's only a few drops of dressing left, I bring another bottle.

You can see where this is heading: fourteen months in, and there's like six little bottles of dressing, most of them with about three drops of liquid dressing and a sort of crusted-on scum. The school nurse and the assistant vice principal had been telling me to get rid of them for about the last two months. Anyway, I was finished with work early (miracle! the contract says 4:30-- I consider myself lucky to be out of there at 5:30-- and today it was 3:45 and I was done!)-- so I just headed for the staffroom sink. I had to ask the assistant vice principal where to put the glass bottles, since he deals with the glass recyclables and metal recyclables generated in the staffroom. (I already knew where to put the staffroom burnable, non-burnable, and three classes of paper recyclables.) He just keeps those recyclables in bins by his desk.

After several trips to his desk to deposit another freshly-clean bottle, he said, "Is that all of them?"

I said, "No, not quite. Actually, this is kind of embarrasing, but a while ago I bought a bottle of lemon dressing, and it was really gross, so I never had it again. I left it in there hoping someone would end up eating it."

"Throw it out!"

"I know, but it's a whole bottle! I feel so bad just ditching it."

"Let me see." He goes over to the fridge, and there just happen to be some sprouts someone left sitting there anyway, so he tries a drop of the lemon dressing on on the sprouts. He pours a drop of the dressing over the sprouts, pops them in his mouth, chews. Thirty seconds later: "You're right, that's really bad."

"I know, right?"

"Straight lemon juice would be better than that. Don't feel bad about throwing it out. --Wait, look at the expiration date. When does this expire?"

"October 29th-- that's today! Sweet! I don't need to feel bad about ditching it all! Shoot, I'm so sorry! I just made you eat almost-expired really gross dressing for nothing!"

"It's OK. Just wash out the bottle and don't worry about it."
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