Marie Antoinette's pastry slave
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24th-May-2015 04:26 am(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
OK, next time I hold a gathering, I'm not even going to post about it here, because it's becoming so commonplace.

I had 12 people over to watch movies. My apartment has always been big enough, but it hasn't always been clean enough, nor have I always had a TV. Given that a lot of the last-minute cleaning was just finding places to hide stuff I didn't want people tripping over, I should probably spend what's left of the weekend going through my closets and bedroom to actually deal with the stuff I shoved out of the way. But I was able to make the floor sweeapable before even the first of the people came, and those first few people came early specifically to help with the vacuuming and whatnot, so as of about 7:30, my apartment was cleaner than it's ever been. (When I arrived never counted, because I didn't have anything in place then.) 12 people came, I met most of them in the parking lot near my house that I directed them to, my sofa filled up, chairs filled up, the zabutons I put on the floor in front of the sofa filled up, and the endtable I put another zabuton on also filled up. We watched Edge of Tomorrow for the first movie, since someone mentioned it a few days ago. I wanted to draw ballots for the second movie, but after one of the people who volunteered to let me use their Netflix account pulled up her Netflix page, everyone agreed on Mean Girls. Some of the guys hadn't seen it before; some of the girls were quoting the lines alongside the characters. It was great.

Now I'm thinking about my next one. I feel like movie nights are a really nice, easy, low-key party for a bunch of people. But what sort of party shall I do next? A dinner party where I make everything? (And if so, how crazy am I going with everything?) A potluck? Is there some sort of middle ground, where I make maybe half the food? What about the sort of party where I just set out cheese plates and have people milling around-- is there a way to invite people over just for that?

I also am thinking about the guest list. My next movie night with all English teachers shouldn't be too hard-- the date will be more or less determined by other prefecturewide events, I wouldn't want to do it too soon with the same group anyway, and, like this one, I'd set up a Facebook event page a few weeks before and invite all the ALTs within about an hour's drive. But for any other kind of party, I think very hard about who I'm inviting. Some people don't like large crowds, some people love them. Some people would be thrilled for me to make them a seven-course dinner, some people would be happier with just beer and potato chips. (Some people, I don't even know which they prefer!) Some English teachers want to practice Japanese; some Japanese people want to practice English; and most people I know are really only comfortable with one language. I'm new to this!
12th-May-2015 07:02 pm(no subject)
me frosting
The school librarian just bought a book of vegetable-based desserts. I am of course familiar already with many of the dessert possibilities of pumpkin, zucchini, and carrot, but these books also do less-familiar ones, like cucumber, tomato, and sugar snap peas. Since it is actually aimed at children, most of the recipes are relatively simple, but even so, they're unusual enough to make me pay attention. Cucumber is grated, mixed with simple syrup and grapefruit juice, and made into a granita. Zucchini are fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar, and then bananas are fried in the same butter, and the two are served together. And cherry tomatoes are layered into the middle of a cake with some whipped cream.

As it so happens, I had a bunch of cherry tomatoes left from an attempt at Shirazi salad. (The small tomatoes seem to be more widely available than the large ones, so they were what I used.) So I checked the cookbook, and it said you just halve the tomatoes, spread a layer of butter cake with whipped cream (it said you use only a little sugar in the cream, not even any vanilla), layer the tomatoes on, spread on more whipped cream, then put the other layer of the cake on top. Then you decorate the edges of the cream with more sliced cherry tomatoes.

Since I don't have an oven, I couldn't make their butter cake, but I got some from a local bakery I like. I had this cake with sliced cherry tomatoes and some cream I whipped.

And maybe it works better if you use the cake recipe they gave, but I have to say it was a really weird combination. Weirder than a bacon and nutella sandwich. Tomatoes have a naturally rich, heavy, sort of meaty quality to their flavor. They really felt very out-of-place with the light, sweet cream and cake.

I could imagine tomatoes as a very small component of a summer fruit dessert: maybe mostly strawberries and blueberries, with a few raspberries and tomatoes thrown in. Let tomatoes be one summer berry among many-- that's what they are, anyway. Maybe then their richness could help support the rest of the fruit flavors. Maybe skin them and make them into a sauce with the rest of them? Or maybe tomato-peach melba? Maybe just chop them and let them macerate with strawberries with a spoonful of sugar before you make them into a parfait? There's also a recipe I found online, where you blanch-peel a beefsteak tomato, then cook pieces of it in sugar before you use them to top ice cream. I feel like the tomato dessert idea has some interesting possibilities-- the one I made just wasn't one of them. I'm not giving up on that cookbook either!
11th-May-2015 03:19 am - food waste
was sleeping
Tomorrow is burnable trash collection day, and since food waste counts as burnable trash, that makes tonight a very good night to clean out the fridge. I threw out the following:

-about a third of a head of lettuce, gone bitter
-300 g of tofu, scarily beyond its expiration date
-5 eggs, weeks expired
-parsley I'd washed, enough to fill a 400 mL box, gone scary-looking
-about a quarter cup of heavy cream gone bad
-a box of strawberries gone moldy
-the peels from 2 udo, which I never got around to using back before they turned all brown and weird
-about 2 oz. of steamed chicken breast

It's ridiculous! I swear I must be shopping for at least 2 people and throwing away at least half of it! Most of it I don't even really understand why I have to throw it out. The strawberries, I forgot to put in the fridge when I bought them, then I went on an impulse Golden Week trip to Kanazawa, and when I got back they were bad, sure. The udo peels are tough and stringy and hard to use, sure. But tofu? Snack anytime! I had weeks of use! Eggs? I can think of at least 10 different ways to use any number of them off the top of my head-- they go in desserts like puddings and French toast, pancakes, as a major componant of pasta carbonara or Caesar salad, or on their own either as an omelette or a tamagoyaki, poached, scrambled, etc. So how did I not get around to finishing the box of 10? The parsley, I'd already washed and made nice, so I couldn've nibbled on it or used it as a garnish for anything for a while before it got all weird-- how did this not happen? What have I been living on, if not all the food in my fridge?

Do any of you have a thowing-out-too-much-food problem like this? Better, did any of you used to have a problem like this but got over it? Do I just need to always remember exactly what I've got in my fridge? I thought I'd been doing that, but somehow I'm still shopping for a whole family. I can't stand throwing away so much food!
16th-Apr-2015 12:28 am - dinner party
was sleeping
If you can count having two friends over for dinner as a dinner party, today I had my first one! I'd wanted to do one for years and years, and now that my apartment and my kitchen are finally coming into shape--

The menu:

Amuse: Pecorino Romano drizzled with molasses (N.B: before today I had never served anyone an amuse-bouche! I've hardly even ever used the word, let alone made them!)

First course:
-Carrots stir-fried with ginger and hot pepper
-Udo braised in cream with lemon and ginger
-Spinach ohitashi (spinach soaked in katsuo broth)

Second course: Salmon meunière

Pallete cleanser: iceplant

Dessert: strawberry parfait

It was a lot more effort than I thought it would be to put it all together. I didn't have all the plates and dishes to even serve all this, or store the parts I could make ahead, so just buying and washing them was a chore. I'd been thinking about a lot of variations for almost all of those, and had been busy all week testing them out. (Meunière is my favorite way to do fish, so that was decided, but what fish to use? I tried about four different kinds before settling on fresh anchovy, which are delicate and delicious and in-season and relatively sustainable. But when I got to the supermarket, there were no fresh anchovies, but there were some really beautiful salmon steaks.) I spent the week trying different variations of Smitten Kitchen's butterscotch pudding (I like it with bacon and five-spice powder and the maximum amount of cream she specifies), but at the supermarket yesterday, there were some gorgeous tiny little strawberries, which led to an abrupt change of plans and me whipping cream for parfaits at 7 p.m. today. I tried the spinach ohitashi with a little lemon zest and decided that it was better without.

I'd meant to make udo kimizu ae, which is udo dressed in a sauce based on egg yolk and vinegar. Udo has a lovely aroma, a bit like fennel, but until then, had never eaten an udo dish that tasted as good as udo smells. Even raw and plain, it doesn't taste as rich and as aromatic as you think it should. So I was very happy a few weeks ago in a ryokan when I was served it in this thin yellow sauce tasting as full and as luxurious as it should. The chef said that it was in kimizu (literally, egg yolk vinegar), which is a sauce thickened with egg yolks and soured with vingar. I found a recipe for it online, and it produced a stinking yellow gloop. So I still really don't know what that chef did, and just cooked the rest of the udo in cream, like cream-braised fennel, with a little lemon and ginger at the end. It still wasn't as good as that chef's version!

I'd also meant to make truffles as a final goodbye nibble, but between one thing and another, I never had time to get them ready.

But by 7:30, I had carrots and spinach and udo chilling in the fridge (the former two completely prepared last night, which is the only way you can get the ohitashi to be the right kind of tender, but with just a bit of bite to it), cream whipped and vanilla'd, strawberries chopped and hanging out with just a spoonful of brown sugar and a drop of lemon juice, the iceplant washed, the parsley with which to garnish the salmon washed, water for tea on, and cheese and salmon and bread ready to go.

Even serving was more work than I thought it would be: all four of the vegetables and the bread had to be plated, the spinach had to be cut into chopstick-edible lengths, the salmon had to be fried, the parfaits had to be assembled (they said, "Whoah! Did you just make parfaits right now?" and I said, "Well, I'd already done all the work!"), and even though I was hanging out with friends, I kept thinking about the next course and whether or not it was time to get it ready.

Next time I do something like this, I'm going to try to avoid thinking about the menu until about a week before, and I won't try to develop more than one recipe for it-- I think all but one of the things I make should be things I'm already reasonably familiar with. Also, even if you're going somewhat crazy for the food (which I definitely want to do sometimes!) you probably don't need to have much more than this, and a lot less would've been just fine. I think I did well in choosing mostly dishes that could be largely done in advance or else cooked easily, but I also realized just how important that is. If it were possible to do everything in advance, so much the better.

Anyway, I'm so happy that I pulled this off! The food was served and enjoyed and the dishes cleaned and put away and only a few things left that didn't make it to the table. I don't know when I'll next do this, or with who, or whether I'm going to go all-out or just make it a "Come over to my place-- let's have sandwiches and watch a movie" kind of deal. But I'm looking forward to doing it again.
6th-Apr-2015 02:37 am - honey
me frosting
I was with a friend the other day and I mentioned that pine honey is really good. I bought some Greek fir honey from Follow the Honey, a honey store in Cambridge, a few years ago, and even though I only ever used it for normal things, I enjoyed its rich sweetness and piney scent every time I had it. The friend said that he'd never had pine honey, but there was a honey store nearby, so we went over to check it out.

Like Follow the Honey, this honey store sold mostly only honey, and a variety of them from across the country and across the world. There wasn't nearly as much selection-- I think there were only about 20 types of honey, as opposed to the hundreds in Follow the Honey. But I could still try all of the ones I was interested in.

I tried sakura honey, made from the nectar of the famous Japanese cherry blossoms-- very sweet, light, and with a faint floral hint. I liked it well enough, but would not pay the 3,000 yen (right now about $25) for 250 mL of it. The shopkeeper explained that since there are no very large collections of cherry trees, in order to make the honey, they bring the bees to one grove, then another, then another. And since being trucked places a lot of stress on the bees, many of them die on each trip. So making sakura honey is hugely labor-intensive and inefficient, but worth it for a small number of rich gourmets. He said that the same was true for almost all of the Japanese honeys made from a single plant: they're all made by driving bees from one grove to another, so even apple blossom honey is the same price.

I also tried shina tree honey. The man explained that the shina tree, also known as the Japanese lime, forms the basis for the old name of Nagano (Shinano) as well as place names like Tateshina. It was very dark, almost bitter, and somewhat caramelly. Finally, I tried haze honey, which he explained is relatively well-known in the Kansai region. The haze tree, also known as the Japanese wax tree, produces a lot of nectar, so it is somewhat easier to get honey from it. It is also caramelly and funky. He said that most Japanese people prefer the mildest and sweetest honeys, such as acacia honey, or wildflower honey. When I visited a Tokyo honey boutique, all of the honeys I tried there were all very sweet and plain, with maybe just a bit of a floral or fruity note-- nothing as strong as pine honey, or as deeply rich as dandelion honey (which I tasted here), and certainly nothing as peculiar as shina honey. I was interested in getting the shina honey, but I didn't have the cash on me.

When I got back home, I called up Follow the Honey again and asked them if $30 for 250 mL is a reasonable price. The lady there said that most of their honeys were about half of that, but some of them were more. Manuka honey from New Zealand is $38 for that amount. Also, the honey production in Japan is considerably less industrialized than it is in many other countries, so it'll be more labor-intensive to make, with high Japanese labor costs. Then factor in the costs of having a shop (and also, IMO, the fact that Japanese people generally don't like bizarre honeys), and that's about what it's going to cost. She also told me that they don't have any Japanese honeys, so any of the Japanese honeys I like would be a nice souvenir for friends or family, and she also asked me to give me the card of any of the Japanese honey shops when I get back to Boston. I promised I would.
4th-Apr-2015 06:38 am - Long drives
was sleeping
I got a few days off between the semesters, so there were a few places not too far away that I wanted to visit, plus having a car makes going anywhere easier. I wanted to visit Matsumoto, about an hour's drive away, because it has rock climbing, alpine slides, and some of the best bookstores and restaurants. I thought it would be an easy drive--it's only an hour, right? There wasn't even anything particularly difficult about it: a very long uphill, and a very long downhill and you're there. But I could not believe how exhausted I was by the end and how much I wanted to be anywhere but the driver's seat! What is it about a longish drive that's so hard, anyway?

A few days later I drove a third of the way to Nagoya. It's a four-hour car trip, or about seven hours by bus and train, since you have to take a bus, then a train in the wrong direction, before you can get on the train that goes there. I drove about a third of the way, for an hour and a half, to a city with a direct 2-hour train connection. Most of it was highway driving. Maybe it was because I knew the sort of mental effort that driving takes, maybe highways are just easier than normal roads, but I felt less tired after that hour and a half than I did after the 1 hour to Matsumoto.

How long was it before any of you got used to long drives? I know there's a huge amount of stuff within just a one-hour driving radius, and if I could handle a four-hour drive, I could go almost anywhere.
26th-Jan-2015 02:24 am - Bookshelf!
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I just got a new bookshelf delivered (bookshelf, $40, delivery and assembly, $80), and I can't believe how happy I am!

I've been needing a new bookshelf for months. There were piles of books on every flat surface and in the corners of all of the rooms. I went through my whole apartment and gathered all the books that weren't in my other bookshelf, and found a lot of books I'd half forgotten about already. I'd also gotten rid of about 20 that just weren't doing it for me.

And now the ones I want all have a home! And somehow the process of going through all the books again, sorting them (manga, novels, cookbooks, study books, Go books, etc) has made about 20 more books I don't need appear, as well as a lot more of those delicious half-forgotten ones--about 40 of them! I feel so rich. If each of those were $5 (which is not the case, as some were $20, some were 1, and some were given to me by friends), that would be like $200, and I never spend $200 at the bookstore! (Well, almost never, anyway. That was just that one time, and three of the books from then that I'd been meaning to get to turned up again anyway.)

It feels so good for all of my books to have a proper home again! Now all of the books in my apartment are on shelves, except for the ones I'm going to give away, the ones I'm borrowing from friends, the big ones that don't fit, the library books, and the ones I'm reading now. And when I next need another book, I'll have all these waiting for me.
23rd-Jan-2015 01:54 pm - Why, Japan??
was sleeping
I am so annoyed with myself. And with Japan.

Today at lunch, along with spinach and sesame salad and noodle soup, they served us chunks of a dark meat in a thick, dark ketchup-based sauce. It looked just like the way they do liver, and tasted almost the same, but was considerably tougher. I'd only gotten about a third of the way through in the allotted 15 minutes for lunch, and was going to throw it out, when one of the students I was eating with asked for its leftovers. (This is not very common.). He explained that it was not liver, but whale.

There is always an announcement over the intercom about what the lunch is, but by the time it came on people had been talking and eating, so I didn't hear. I'd only caught "traditional".

I ran to the staff room to check the ingredients list, and sure enough, "whale" was the first ingredient, followed by sunflower oil, ketchup, starch, miso, and curry powder. (I intend to give you many recipes in the future, but please don't combine all those other ingredients either.)

How can they do this?? To not only kill whales, but to give them to the partially-trained people who make school lunch? To serve them to hundreds of kids who may have no idea of what they're eating? Some of the other teachers also thought it was liver. I ate one of the most endangered animals, and I didn't even know it!

I should know by now that if there's anything you don't want to eat, you have to check everything. When I was vegetarian, I might ask for a tofu salad, or a sliced cucumber, only to find it covered with fish flakes. I might ask for them to avoid those too, only to have them serve me shrimp and clams. There are only a few animals I definitely don't want to eat, and I was sure that they are all so expensive that they would never appear in school lunch, but I was wrong.
2nd-Jan-2015 05:47 pm(no subject)
me frosting
You guys. I have just made Melissa Clark's pasta with fried lemons. You make pasta which you toss with butter and Parmesan, but before you boil the pasta, you blanch some lemon slices in the water first. You fry the lemons with a pinch of sugar while the pasta cooks, and in the end toss them in with some additional zest and juice. I was worried that the lemons would be weird and bitter, since you eat them peel and all, but they were so so good! They were just a bit chewy and unbelievably sweetly lemony fragrant, not bitter at all! I don't know how this would come out with regular lemons (I happened to have Meyer lemons) but I definitely want to try this again. I wish I'd made more!
2nd-Jan-2015 05:34 pm(no subject)
forgot to sleep by amaralen
I think the most Japanese thing expats living in Japan can do for New Years is to go home. For the past 2 weeks, everyone's been asking me, "Aren't you going home for New Years? Don't you miss your family?" Over here, New Years is kind of like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, all rolled together. You're supposed to spend the few days before and after with your family. Furthermore, the whole country shuts down for the week: banks close, ATMs close, garbage pickup stops, supermarkets close, buses stop running, libraries close, gyms close. Pretty much anywhere you go on your own closes; only places you can go with your family, like movie theaters and certain restaurants, stay open.

Anyway, happy new year, congrats for making it here, and good luck for next year!

My New Year's resolution: use up and wash out jars of mustard and jam etc when I get close to finishing them, not leave them to molder in the fridge.
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: ), 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.

Posted via

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.
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