me frosting

(no subject)

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.
forgot to sleep by amaralen

Happy New Year, Japanese style

"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!
was sleeping

JLPT again

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.
was sleeping

ex-vegetarian

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!
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(no subject)

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."
was sleeping

(no subject)

Is there any chance any of you could email me a scan of a couple of pages from the official English translation of Hikaru no Go? I want the one about halfway through the fourth chapter, with super-angry Akira with go stones flying through the background. If any of you could do this, I would be super super grateful.
was sleeping

easy pumpkin recipe

Monday was a holiday here, so I spent the long weekend with some friends who live in Tokyo. It was wonderful, since they live right near a subway station. I could sleep as long as I wanted, and I could even go out during the day, and go back and have dinner and freshen up before going out for the night-- something I can't even do in Boston. I only did a few things-- I got a teaching game from a professional Go player, I checked out Akihabara and had lunch at a maid cafe, I did some shopping-- but I was able to relax and enjoy them more than if I had just been rushing from place to place or if I'd had to get up super-early. I think I'd been doing the travelling thing all wrong. Next time I travel I will only do a couple of things per day, and I will book the hotel for long enough that I won't have to worry about annoying check-out times.

Anyway, the second day, we had some leftover pumpkins in the fridge. They didn't have anything but grapes and soda in their fridge when I arrived, because they don't do any of their cooking, but the first day we made dal an a few simple curries together, because they were curious about them. (We made this dal recipe, although we didn't use so much oil. None of them had ever had dal before.) I also got pumpkins for kaddu ki sabzi, which is a very simple dish of pumpkins cooked in spices. When I checked the recipes online, I saw that they called for fenugreek (one blogger said that it is essential, even), and we didn't have any. So I said, "Well, we can simmer them Japanese-style, right? You have soy sauce and sugar." Some of my Japanese cookbooks had recipes for pumpkin simmered in a broth with soy sauce and suger. And one of the guys said, "Nah, that takes too long. Let's just fry them." He sliced the pumpkin to about 5 mm, skin on, and fried them in a nonstick skillet with just a little oil until they were soft, sweet, and barely beginning to color and get crisp on the edges. They were wonderful.

I feel incredibly happy and very silly about this. This is not a recipe I needed to go to Tokyo to get; I am sure that any of my Nagano friends could have told me, and I probably could have figured it out on my own even in America. But I am grateful for any 10-minute vegetable recipe, no matter what means I find it by.
dark Harry from OoTP cover

Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings

Now that I can read Japanese fast enough to finish a typical novel in 2 or 3 weeks, I figured it was time to check out the local library. Libraries have a lot of things not in bookstores, and besides, if I can read a book before it's due, why shouldn't I?

I was a bit surprised to see a whole bookshelf full of nothing but Western translations. Of course all of Earthsea-- the movie made the book much more popular-- but also the Inkspell series (translated from the German), Ella Enchanted, a bunch of others. Now, reading a Japanese translation of a book that was originally written in English is one of the least appealing ways to practice Japanese that I can think of. If I'm going to chew over a book for three weeks, I'd definitely rather it be a book originally written in the Japanese, instead of something that originally was English anyway.

I changed my mind, though, when I saw Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings by Ursula K. LeGuin. I haven't actually read the original (and I am frustrated that it's not available for Kindle!), but I know it's not a rare book. Besides, it is written by one of my very favorite authors, and translated into the Japanese by Murakami Haruki. And if he says it's good Japanese, it's good Japanese. I've read English translations of books I've read in the Japanese before, and it can be interesting to compare them, so why not occasionally go the other way? (Besides, it's short.)

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forgot to sleep by amaralen

Nagano grapes

About a month ago, about a week after the new batch of JETs arrived in my city, one of those new JETs posted a question to the local FB group: Where in the city can fresh strawberries be found? I couldn't say, because I hadn't even thought of looking for them. The answer, of course, is that although there are some imported and/or out of season fruits and vegetables, and some things available year-round, generally you can only buy things here when they're in season. Strawberries are in season in Nagano from maybe late February to mid-April, and then you just can't find them. In August, you might be able to find frozen strawberries in one of the bigger stores, but that's it.

Anyway, now that it's mid-September, the grapes are in season. And I have to say, I like the grapes you can get in Japan a lot better than the ones you can get in America. (To be fair, many of the ones here do come from California. Maybe only New England is unlucky.) The sort of seedless grapes I was familiar with are very rare here. You can buy specific varieties of grapes, like Muscat or Steuben or Niagara. They usually have seeds and usually have very thick skins, but they more than make up for this in flavor.

My favorite variety of grape is called kyohō (巨峰), which is a brand name; I don't know what else they are called. They are giant, almost as large as small plums. Their skin is tough enough that you can peel it off with your fingers if you want to, and they usually have seeds. They are intensely sweet, far sweeter than normal grapes, sweeter than gummi bears, sweeter than a spoonful of granulated sugar--they're almost as sweet as Kool-Aid. Any sweeter and they'd be inedible. And almost as strong as the sweetness is a pure, rich, intense grape flavor. It's hard to describe: they taste like grape, only considerably more so.

Someone brought in some of these grapes to the staffrooms at two of the schools I work at last year. Most of the teachers were able to suck out the pulp from the skins and then spit out the seeds. I was quite surprised, because I had never seen anyone eat grapes like this before. A few of them peeled the grapes with their fingers. It is pretty much impossible for me to spit out anything, so I found a knife so I could cut them open and pick out the seeds first.

Nagano produces a lot of these grapes, and now that they're in season they're quite cheap (at least by Japanese fruit standards). If you walk by the display at the supermarket, you smell a rich, fruity grape smell.
was sleeping

summer vacation

It's almost August, so it's almost summer vacation.

What this means is that there are three weeks in between the first semester (from April through July) and the second semester (from the end of August to the end of the year). But this does not mean the teachers or even the staff gets three weeks off. Every day of that three weeks is technically a work day, so if you want even one day off, you use one day of annual leave to take it. In my school, everyone gets 20 days of paid leave per year. This is a lot, for Japan-- many companies give you only five days. Also, in general you have to take vacation days when you're sick, because if there's no doctor's note, it didn't happen. And remember that the 20 days is also to be used over winter break and spring break. Also, sometimes you're told to take one of those days: if there's a conference or something that you can't participate in, but it's a work day, no one is at the school, so there's no point in going, but it is a work day.

For the teachers, the problem is not just with the shortness of the vacation, but with all the other stuff they have to do too. All of the teachers have many administrative duties besides teaching, and the whole Japanese school structure compounds that. For instance, there is no kitchen in the school; school lunch is made in a school lunch center a few miles away, and then distributed by the students. One of the English teachers' jobs is to liase with the school lunch center and oversee the student distribution process. I have no idea what most of the teachers do-- there's budget stuff, PTA stuff, sports teams stuff-- but there's a lot of it.

Anyway, add it all up and most teachers are taking one week off for their summer vacations. And this is a pretty long time by Japanese standards. My school, in northern Nagano, in central Japan, is close enough to Tokyo that you can go there any weekend, and we're close to Nagano City and Karuizawa too. But for anything else, you really need a longer break. A few teachers are going to go overseas, because it's actually cheaper to go to India or Hawaii than it is to go to Hokkaido. Travelling in Japan is expensive. And travelling outside of Japan is cheap. A friend of mine visited Seoul, and the travel company arranged for her round-trip flight and lodging for 3 days, and it cost her I think about $300.

That said, I do not plan to travel. It's not the money or even the time--it's just too much work. Yes, there are many beautiful and interesting places, but I think they are almost as beautiful in books or on video. My perfect vacation does not involve getting up early (which I would have to do if I were to travel) or spending long amounts of time in trains, or trying to find out where I'm supposed to go. I have to do enough of that any other day. No, my perfect vacation involves sleeping for as long as I want to, piles of books, and never spending any more effort than it takes to cause brownies to appear. Even in America, I had plenty of books, but never enough time to read them. And planning a trip and then taking it just feels like more work. I want to be lazy. I want to do nothing. A plate of brownies, a stack of paperbacks, and a couch-- that's all I need. Why leave home?