14 December 2012

What is Christmas like in Japan?

This is my second December in Japan. Right about this time last year, we flew over to Nagoya for our home finding trip. My first time in Asia, my first time in Japan, my first time in the city I would soon be calling my home, and one of my first thoughts was 'Woah, hellooooo Christmas." Just like that, with the oooos draw out and everything.

For a country with a 1% Christian population, Christmas is HUGE here. Lights, Santa, trees, elaborate store displays -- it's on every inch of public space. At the post office today, there was even a stack of what appeared to be Christmas wrapped toilet paper, complete with a cardboard Christmas tree on top (I asked to take a photo of it, but the woman said no. To which I tell my future self: Never ask, only apologize). There seems to be a fascination and embrace of western culture, and without things like 'Thanksgiving' and 'widespread belief in Jesus' to hold people back, Christmas came to Nagoya on November 1st. Pumpkins came down. Poinsettias went up. Topiaries of woodland creatures were placed in those poinsettas. I don't get it either, but I love it.

Perhaps I would find it a bit overwhelming if I was still in the States, but I love the early Christmas season in Nagoya. It reminds me of home, it eases the cold weather, it generally makes me feel all happy and cheerful. I love shopping for presents, I love lights, I love Christmas movies; I insist on watching The Grinch at least five times during December. The decorations remind me of home, even if it's not exactly the same. (See topiary animals and dog playing the lute next to a rooster, above.)

As you may assume, Christmas is totally commercial and secular here and not an official holiday. It's a season for lights and ornate shopping displays, but people are not bringing trees into their home or leaving out cookies for Santa. Christmas cakes -- white cakes with strawberries and cream frosting -- are popular and sold everywhere from fancy department store cafes to 7-11s. The big place to eat on Christmas Eve or Day is KFC... as in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lines are super long, and if you want a bucket, you have to preorder weeks in advance.  People say it's because people here think of chicken as a traditional Christmas food, and KFC is a logical place for chicken. I like to think it's because Colonel Sanders and Saint Nick bare more than a passing resemblance. Christmas Eve is a popular date night, akin to our New Years. Japanese New Year's, on the other hand, is a quiet, family holiday, with rituals and traditions to bring luck and good fortune to your family. Shrines and temples, not clubs and bars, on Japanese New Year's Eve.

Instead of holiday cards, Nihon-jin send New Year's postcards. Department stores and post offices are stocked full of beautiful decorated cards for the year of the snake. (I never thought I'd write 'beautiful' and 'snake' together, but there you go.) Special postage rates are given, and it's only an additional ¥20 to send it abroad (about 25¢ USD). That's probably what Amos and I would have done, if, you know, we had gotten our act more together. Next year! Cultural immersion! Being adults! Saving money because, whew, the few cards we did send were not cheap.

The one major downside to the holidays here (besides, you know, having our families across the ocean) is that it is all said and done early morning on December 26th. Light season is over. Decorations come down, Christmas music is off, and the country moves on. New Year's, the bigger holiday, takes over. Lucky for us, we are taking off this weekend and won't be back until January 2nd, missing the depressing de-Christmas-ing, but still getting in on the New Years festivities. Where are we going, you ask? Oh, just a little place called NEPAL. Yeah, that's a whole 'nother post. Wait for it.

Until then... Merry Christmas!

07 December 2012

Amerika-jin desu.

I'm sitting in my Nagoya apartment, just after sundown on a Thursday. I'm a walking cliche of an American in Japan: My day today was a Japanese lesson, followed by a yukata (summer kimono) sewing class, to which I biked to-and-from, blustery weather be damned. I'm now at my breakfast bar, drinking Nihonshu (known in the States as sake), eating edamame, trying to get a little writing in before Amos gets home from work.

It's very 'American in Japan' because I am pretty positive a Japanese housewife would be
1) cooking dinner for her hardworking husband,
2) have cooked bento (or packed lunch) for said hardworking husband, and
3) have gotten dressed at some point today.

I, on the other hand, am rolling around in yoga pants and a workout shirt, content to sort out dinner only once Amos comes home and is here to cook with me. I rarely make him lunch, but he seems happy with the breakfast bars I faithfully stock in the fridge and the conveniently-located-Indian-restaurant-with-a-lunch-special. Also, I totally overcooked the edamame, and I'm eating it anyway.

I am so not a Japanese housewife.

In so many ways, though, my life is remarkably different than it was in America.

I find myself like this -- this somewhere in the middle bit -- quite often. I'll be doing one thing, but I'm not doing it quite like everyone else. I can be in Japan, I can learn Japanese, I can pick up the rules and the manners and the behaviors, but I cannot help but think American. My sweet friends from the UK cannot help but think British. My Japanese friends, teachers, and students cannot help but think Japanese. It's a perspective, and no matter how well travelled you are, how much of another culture you absorb, I think that essence stays with you for a long time, giving you a perspective inherently shaped by your home land.

The longer we live here, the more I'm recognizing the inevitable irreconcilable opinions. My perspective is shaped by the moral standards of my country, the family I grew up in, the places I have lived, and there are fundamental truths that I hold that people dear to me do not. Now, please don't worry. This isn't all heavy things like 'gender-roles,' and 'business practices,' and 'mass-transportation etiquette.' It can be really simple. It can be breakfast.

I am American. Ergo, doughnuts are inarguably a BREAKFAST FOOD. Apparently to the rest of the world, this is ludicrous. Logically, I know that fried and sugared bread is not the World's Best Breakfast. I know it spikes my blood sugar and sets me up for all-day sugar cravings, and, no, I don't eat it every day, but in spite of the ridiculousness, doughnuts are a breakfast food. Always have been. Always will be. I don't care what the Europeans and Asians say. (When I say it's a breakfast food, I don't mean to imply I won't eat them at any time during the day. Come on. They are delicious.)

This is what I'm talking about. It's breakfast food, people. It's the fact that savory flavors rule the breakfast for a Japanese person, and sweet takes the cake for an American. (Please ignore the BMI comparisons between the two countries for the sake of this argument. I KNOW.) Salmon will never, ever, ever be a breakfast food to me... or miso soup, rice, or tofu. ごめんなさい.

What I've learned is to keep my mouth shut, and simply observe the silliness / brillance / sexism / inefficiency / breathtaking beauty of the what I see, of other peoples' truths, of their likes and dislikes, of what they consider to be 'right.' To be inspired by the care that the Nagoyans put in their daily appearance. To be impressed by the time that Japanese mothers take with their families' bentos. To laugh at myself at the mountains of forms (that all have to be stamped at least six times) to do anything with the Japanese government. To let the oft-entrenched sexism roll off me. To be always awed by the efficiency of the rarely-late-train system. To know that the more I experience, the more my perspective will be changed by what I see, and my expat experience will shift my thinking and leave an impression on my heart. These days, however, I'm mostly accepting and trying to appreciate that I'll always be Amerika-jin.... In-public-yoga-pants-wearing, morning-doughnut-eating, and all.*

*Dude, they're lulu-lemon. It's totally kosher.

Adorable Mister Donut Pon Lion images from here and here.

For an equally entertaining Pon Lion commercial, please watch this
It's almost enough to forgive Japan for insisting donut shops need not open until 11AM.

21 November 2012

Japanese Thanksgiving 2012: The Year of the Toaster Oven

It wasn't until my 20s that I got on the Thanksgiving train. When I was younger, I didn't quite understand the fuss. I was a pesco-vegetarian from the age of 10 (thanks to a traumatic viewing of the movie Babe, with that adorable singing pig). The whole Thanksgiving holiday seemed a bit overrated, with the waiting, and the cooking, and the dishes -- oh the dishes. It certainly couldn't compare to Christmas (evergreen, lights, Santa Claus) and it didn't hold a candle to Easter (fancy dresses, jelly beans, Cadbury Eggs).

But in my early 20s, living in a house just off my university's campus, I began to host "Friend Thanksgiving." My roommates and I would scrounge up enough chairs, buy a turkey, make a couple frantic calls to moms back in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and cook a smörgåsbord of all our favorite childhood dishes, served up with entirely too much wine. We'd sit at a kitchen table pushed up against a card table, covered with a bed sheet posing as a tablecloth, and we'd go around, each person saying what they were thankful for. It was ragtag in the best sense of the word, a community meal before we went back to our real homes to eat much fancier and probably more sober meals with our families, who already knew the secrets of Thanksgiving like you should defrost the turkey the night before.

This year, when a sweet British friend asked if we could host "a real American Thanksgiving," I wasn't opposed to the idea. It took a bit of convincing from Amos that we could pull it off; this is the holiday, after all, where the primary challenge seems to be how-much-can-you-fit-in-an-oven... of which we don't have. We do have a toaster, measuring 10 inches by 12 and I did happen to find cranberries, squash, and a WHOLE chicken, weighing in at a whopping 3 pounds. We considered it fate. Thanksgiving in Japanland was a go.

With that irrational confidence, four Brits, an Aussie, and a South African walked into an American's house for Thanksgiving. We had roast chicken instead of turkey, Japanese sweet potatoes instead of yams, and pumpkin pie made from kabocha squash. We made a Ginger Cranberry Lime soda for those whose throats were parched from a 2AM karaoke session the night before, and we had wine from Washington state and Adelaide, Australia, representing the fine geographical spread of our guests. We had nowhere near enough chairs and instead sat on the floor, Japanese style, and ate at our coffee tables, which, somehow, didn't seem weird at all.

There were a couple clear winners, a couple clear losers, and the poor toaster oven did its best but couldn't quite get everything done on time (sorry, still-slightly-hard sweet potatoes and American style biscuits that were finished just in time for dessert).

But the star, you guys? The cranberry chutney. Like Thanksgiving, it's something that I've grown to love. My mom's version is raw minced cranberries with orange peel and pecans, and, while I understand the tart appeal, I've found myself unable to embrace it fully. In my childhood, it certainly couldn't compete with the cloyingly sweet Sweet Potato casserole that appeared at our Midwestern get-togethers. My adult tastebuds, grown up a bit, discovered relish, and fell in love. The tangy cranberries, the simmered citrus, the kick of ginger... oh boy. This is the real deal, and just the way I like it: Cranberries simmered down until they are right on the edge of chutney, almost tipping into relish, where the berries are recognizably round, but soft and content to stick to the spoon.

Orangette's (Bastardized) Cranberry Chutney

Through trial and error and the inability to return wrongly purchased items to the grocery store, I had to make several adjustments to this recipe, and, praise be, it still worked. The flavor profile is fantastic. It's my favorite meal from The Japanese Thanksgiving of 2012, the Year of the Toaster Oven and Stove. It's a make ahead meal. Pop in the fridge, and bring to room temperature to serve. I recommend it slathered on turkey, biscuits, or eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon. It's that good you guys.

I meant to have apricot preserves instead of orange, but while looking at the apricot jars, I accidentally picked up orange. I did the same thing with the dried cranberries. Rushing and seeing the クラ, I picked it up, not realizing it was the クラ  of cranberries and not cherries. That's what I get for rushing and not reading. Damn! However, with those two substitutions, plus fresh ginger for crystalized, and apple cider vinegar for raspberry, it seems to come together perfectly. I can't say that I would change a thing.

24 ounces (300 grams) good orange preserves
3/4 cup (6 ounces) apple cider vinegar
Pinch of salt
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 cup (2 ounces) Grand Mariner
2 bags cranberries
1/4 cup (2 ounces) peeled and finely diced fresh ginger
1 1/4 cup (10 ounces) dried cranberries

In a large saucepan, combine the orange preserves, apple cider vinegar, salt, cloves, and Grand Mariner. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon, as it will "bubble ferociously," to quote Orangette, and she is telling no lies. Once it thickens, about 10-15 minutes, stir in cranberries (thawed if frozen). Reduce heat to medium, and stir until they are beginning to pop and soften. Basically, you want them to still be cranberry shaped, but warm and soft. Toss in the ginger a minute or two before the cranberries are done, so it has time to mellow in the mixture. When cranberries are soft, pull the pan off the heat and stir in the dried cranberries. Cool for a couple minutes, then pour in a serving dish, cover, and chill. It thickens up considerably.

This recipe makes a surprisingly generous amount, but it's delicious, freezes well, and would make a cute hostess gift in a little jar, so please don't worry.

16 November 2012

5 Things to Pack When You Move Abroad

Our hotel room, 3 days in. Moving sucks.

Moving abroad is a whole host of things: exciting, terrifying, crazy-in-a-good-way, crazy-in-a-bad-way. Packing to move abroad, on the other hand, is just one thing: overwhelming. It's the physical manifestation of all the unexpected and unknowns that currently comprise your life. If you are anything like me, it's an exercise in frustration and fruitless google-ing. I had no idea what I would need, or want, or use.

We were advised to bring things that 'smelled' like home, so I packed months' worth of shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, and deodorants. I have since come to realize that you can buy these types of things in Japan. (Forehead slap.) I don't feel too bad about it, though, because it's near impossible to precisely know what you need to pack.

The challenge is obviously dependent on where you move, or where you're moving from, and if you're bringing furniture over, or if you're going to purchase furniture when you arrive, or if you'll live in a furnished flat. It depends if you are going to ship things back home with you, or if you're going to sell them when you leave. Are you a committed minimalist moving just your bad self, or are you hauling the family-down-to-the-dog? There are VARIABLES, people. You meet five expats, you'll hear five Move Across the World Strategies.

Because I was so lost when I came over, here is my take of the 5 things to toss in your suitcase before you move across the world. It's my best effort for to quantify something that's pretty hard to pin down. I also want to something pop up for the next Type A lady who tries to google her way into Having All the Answers. (Good luck, my soul sister. I understand.)

1. A (Good) Workout Video
Amos and I were very committed to finding a gym when we moved to Nagoya. Physical fitness is important for both my mental and physical health and was an important part of my 'routine' in Seattle. However, Japan is not into gyms the way the US is into gyms, so it took us sometime to find one that worked for us... and then some more time to figure out how to sign up, the hours it was open, not to mention to get into a habit of going. (Another delay? Indoor shoes! For the gyms here, you need a pair of sneaks that have never been outside. It's not like the US where 'indoor shoes' simply means non-marking non-black soled sneakers. Add this requirement to the narrow selection of shoe sizes here, and you understand why it took us a couple months to get our act together.) It's nice to have something you can pop in and do in a hotel room or apartment. It's easy. If you're like me, getting the motivation to work out can be challenge enough; I need the actual working out part to be logistically simple. A good workout DVD can be just the ticket. Also, it'll be in your native langage, so even after you find a gym, it can be a nice break to following directions in Japanese / Spanish / German / et al. I like the Bar Method, Zumba, P90X, and Do Yoga With Me (online, so you don't even have to pack!)

2. A live concert DVD or a season of your favorite television show
When we moved, I was going from a very full, busy life to... well, I had no idea what my days would look like. I had a suspicion they would be less social than my days in Seattle. (I was right.) That's where Adele comes in. When I'm in my apartment and it's just too quiet, or when I'm lonely because all the daily chatter in my life is in a language I don't understand, I can toss in Adele and it feels like friends are hanging out in my living room; it's better than music because she talks and chats during the concert. It makes the day-to-day aloneness more survivable, especially in the beginning. Also: you get to pretend Adele is your BFF, which is a favorite fantasy of mine. I also watch old episodes of Parks and Rec like it's my job. You cannot be sad when you are in the company of Leslie Knope.

(When you're abroad, check out iTunes Season Pass to keep caught up on recent episodes. I do like DVDs, though, for when the internet invariably isn't cooperating, which always seem to coincide with the moments that I am about to lose. my. shit.)

A note about the two suggestions above: remember that DVDs (and players) are regionalized, so make sure your DVDs match your player's region. We brought over our computers and DVD player, but are now stuck having to purchase all DVDs from the US region and ship them over. A note to Those In Charge Of Such Things: this is really annoying.

3. Kindle / E-Reader
I know, bibliophiles: a real book just feels better in your hands. Blah-blah-non-English-speaking-country-blah. Get a Kindle (or other e-reader) before you move abroad. The ability to buy books in your native language is key, both for voracious readers like myself and for decidedly less enthusiastic readers like my husband. We use our Kindles more than we did back home. A big bonus is the e-edition of your favorite magazines, which is so much better than rerouted mail or paying the equivalent of $8 for a three month old copy of Vogue. (Careful which magazines you subscribe too... Sunset does nothing but make me pine for West Coast living, while Martha Stewart and Bon Appetit bring me quite a bit of joy. Maybe because the aren't so regionally focused?)

4. Month supply of toiletries... or whatever.
From experience, let me tell you that hauling over a year's supply of Aveda may not be worth it. In most places in the world, it's simple enough to buy necessary toiletries  That said, it's nice not to have to run out and find something important like toothpaste or tampons within a day of landing. Give yourself time to figure out which way is up and have a couple weeks' stock on hand. A small amount should do. That's also packing jeans, bras, coats with some life left in them. New shoes, plenty of socks. If you're really on top of things (or tend to get sick) throw in a box of cold medicine. Don't create more hurdles than you'll already have when you're FOB (or FOA... whatever). One note: if you're moving to a country of a predominately different race, you may want to stock up on hair and makeup supplies that are clutch. I've had great luck with mascaras, eyeshadows, and even blush in Japan, but for curly hair and pale skin? I bring that from home (or my very kind sister ships it over).

5. Tea or small candies... something edible from home.
This is silly, but I always throw a box of Yogi's Egyptian Licorice tea in my bag before I head to Japan. I know; this is the land of tea, and here I am, insisting on bringing it from home. But it takes up no space and when I sit on my couch after a day where I failed to communicate, where I got lost, where I missed my friends, where I yadda-yadda-yadda, the tea makes me feel all warm and cozy and home, even if I am living in a sometimes overwhelming country. If there is something small you can bring that takes you back to your comfort zone -- a small thing of good olive oil? A tin of cookies or candies? Pringles? Coconut flour? -- throw it in. Sure, you may be able to find it in your new country, but you may not, so it's nice to have. Word of the wise: double-bag that shiznit. It'd be so shameful to haul coconut flour across the Pacific, only to have it explode in your suitcase.

Eh? Maybe? Take this, along with all expat advice, with a grain of salt. I've learned that, on a certain level, we're all winging it. Best of luck.

All images above are mine, except for The Parks and Recreations header, via Kevin Levine, the Adele photo, via this site, and the E-Reader image, via Basehor Library.

09 November 2012

Hiking Karasawa-dake (涸沢岳), Nagano Prefecture

Amos and I have been very, very lucky to have so many visitors. When I think about it, what it means to visit us in Japan, with the 14-hour flights, the time off of work, the expense of travelling, it makes me deeply grateful that our families and friends would make such a monumental effort to show up to say hello, to sit in our living room, to see where we live. When I really think about it, it leaves me a little breathless. It's so generous.

With all that people do to get here, the least I can do is play tour guide for a bit. Show them the temples and the markets, hoping that in some way to help I can be of help. "This is how you get subway tickets," I'll say. Or "Here's how you order that with / without cheese / meat / ice." 

As such, I've seen Tokyo three times, and Kyoto at least five. Stay here, eat here, see this, this, and this. Get the ¥500 all day bus pass; skip the subways. I know the express trains for the airport, both Nagoya and Tokyo, and the Shinkansen and JR Pass websites are bookmarked. Amos and I have a list of restaurants to take people in Nagoya, as it's a city without much do to but eat, drink, and sing karaoke alongside the ubiquitous salarymen. There are worse places to live.

But. Then. Well. There are the friends who say Can we go somewhere new for you? The friends that have travelled already and prefer to be off the beaten path. The friends who you grew up with in Colorado, when you spent your summers hiking 14-ers. When these friends visit, you can get a little creative in your travel plans.

Seeing the Japanese Alps had been on my bucket list since we moved here. In this country of crowded cities and hyperfunctioning urban infrastructure, I was anxious to see another side of Japan. To top it off, here was the chance to explore it with girls I've been hiking with since forever. And at the height of 'color season.' I'm from Colorado, so I have high standards for fall leaves, but everyone told me Japan wouldn't disappoint. (Spoiler alert: It didn't.)

We took the train up to Takayama and caught the bus to Kamikochi, transferring at the Hirayou Onsen. (Cars aren't allowed into Kamikochi, so even if we had driven, we'd have parked there then caught the bus.) We camped in Kamikochi, which is kind of like the 'basecamp' for the Alps, with hotels and campsites and little stores. After the last bus for the night departed and the heavy crowds subsided, we walked by the dark river under the stars and drank Asahi Black and tiny travel glasses of wine we bought from vending machine (To which my friend took a sip, thought for a second and said, "This isn't dark beer is it?" No, no it's not, but its as close as Japan gets.) In the morning, we lounged over subpar instant matcha lattes while we watched a pair of monkeys stroll into camp. It was awesome.

We got on the trail around 7AM, the earliest we could head off while still being able to check our tent and carry lighter packs. The first couple hours were quite flat, as we hiked alongside an empty river bed, heading deeper into the valley. Along the way, we passed several campsites and rest areas where we could buy snacks, use the restroom, or -- had we hiked in the pervious night -- camped. Tents were still set up, waiting the return of their summiting hikers, and, like the Japanese outdoor fashion, the tents were much more colorful than those back home. They dotted the field and made we instantly jealous of the bright yellows and reds, compared to my drab green and brown PNW tent. Note to REI: I'd bet that the bright Japanese colors could be very popular for the American market, based soley on the amount of money I've spent on colorful Japanese gear.

We hiked along until we reached Yokoo Campground, where we turned off and crossed the Katsura River (that's a photo of the bridge, above). From there, we finally started gaining some elevation, though the going was very, very slow because of the crowds. It was a bit escalator-ish at times, but people-watching the hiking groups and outdoor enthusiasts helped pass the time. We only saw two other Westerners -- a couple from Sweden -- and they had been in the Alps for seven days and we were the first non-Japanese people they had run into. 

Walking with two tall, blonde girls did lend itself to some enthusiastic konnichiwas (and the occasional hello!). My friends really began to nail ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, sumimasen, and before long they were fluent in the hiking greetings of Japan. When we would say konnichiwa, I would see people register our accents and look up, shocked, to see three gaijin girls hiking up in the backcountry. It made the time pass pretty quickly.

Our original destination was the Hotaka-dake (穂高岳), but due to our relatively late start, the crowds on the trail, and the clouds that were rolling in by 1PM, we decided to call it good at Karasawa Hut, at the base of Karsarwa-dake (涸沢岳). The hut looked much more inviting than the trail, and we wanted to make sure we were there in time for dinner. The Karasawa Valley is known for being one of the most beautiful to see the autum colors. Hot tea on a balcony overlooking the valley quickly won out over continuing along the trail, and it was fantastic, if chilly.

In planning the trip, we had hemmed and haw'd if we should stay in tents or the backcountry huts. The huts have clear advantages: they are heated, you sleep on a futon and can pack light without your sleeping bag, pad, and tent, and you can get a hot breakfast and dinner. On the downside, they are not cheap (¥9,000 or about $113 per person) and they can be quite crowded, as they don't turn people away. Staying in a tent is much easier on the wallet, as campgrounds are only ¥500 ($6), but you have to haul up your gear and food, and the campsites are situated in a rock field. Ouch. We were in mid-October, so the weather was iffy, even if the colors were fantastic. Given all of this, we opted for the huts. The vegetarian of our group opted out of the meals, since they were quite meat heavy, and saved about ¥3,000. Had she been so inclined, she could have gotten udon or ramen for about ¥800 at the cafe, but she swears her dehydrated miso soup was delicious. What a liar face.

(This is hiking and backcountry Japan. Roughing it is all relative.)

After checking into the hut, we made our way down to our room, only to discover that it was crowded enough that there were 3 people to a futon. The beds were two bunks, one on top of the other, and stretched the length of the room. There were 32 spots for people, half on top, half on bottom. That translated to about 10 inches per person. Even for the slim Japanese, those are laughably close quarters.  There was no way to fit, unless we spooned. With 18 of our newest Japanese friends.

Let's just say that the next day, a boyfriend back in the States got an email that read "So last night I slept with 60 year old Japanese man..."

Honestly, though, it wasn't that bad. Yes, it was terribly crowded and some people were quite loud snorers. Lights came on at 4AM, and our breakfast was shortly thereafter. But it gave my friends and me a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with Japanese hikers of all walks of life. Japan is such a safe country that we weren't worried about our unattended bags or someone trying to get fresh. When we grabbed a drink in the small bar, or when we sat and looked at a map in the bunkroom, or when we were brushing our teeth, people came up to us and asked us where we were from, and how our day was, and which route we were going to take tomorrow. Some people were easy to understand, some were not, but it was much more time spent hanging out with people who live in Japan, rather than simply taking a photo of a monument or temple. I don't want to discount that -- sightseeing is a fantastic part of any trip, and the temples in Japan are amazing -- but it's nice to have a beer with someone who lives in the country you're visiting.

The next day, even though we were leaving bright and early (what else do you call a 4:30AM breakfast call?), we opted out of summiting Karasawa-dake or continuing on to Hokata-dake since we were due back in Takayama that night and we didn't want to miss the last bus. We took our time getting home, stopping for a hot lunch, saying konichiwa and sumimasen to each person as we passed. The steep part went quickly, and, as expected, the walk on the flat section seemed to take forever. I am easily annoyed by out-and-back trips, as opposed to loops, and I tried to keep my inner complainer in check.

We ended up on a bus that routed us back to Takayama and we arrived at our little ryokan in time to enjoy the onsen. We had meant to be there for a festival, but I miscalculated by a day, and we arrived to a shut-up Takayama, with quiet streets and dimmed lights, recovering from the night before. We searched and found a teeny and charming French restaurant, took one of the three tables, and toasted to a successful, if too short, visit to the Alps. 

What to know, if you go:

- Make sure you have a map, and know the kanji of where you would like to go. We purchased a great topo map in Kamikochi, but we also bought the last copy, so I'd try and have it before you arrive. Some names were in English on the map, but all the trail signs were in Japanese.

- Hiking in the Alps is pretty straightforward. The trails are well maintained, there is a well developed network of huts, and you can purchase food and drinks and limited supplies as you ascend (but be warned, prices do increase with elevation.) We were able to change our plans easily and be adjust to our energy levels, crowds, weather, &c.

- That said, these are some big mountains. The Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan books suggests a route from Oku-hotaka-dake (奥穂高岳) to Yari-ga-take (槍ヶ岳), which includes a section known as the Daikiretto (大キレット, Japanese for "Big Cut"). Our initial idea was to follow this route for a three day trip, but we rethought that idea after reading more about the Daikiretto. Lonely Planet makes it seem difficult but manageable, a section easily accomplished by experienced hikers with no technical skills. Friends, I think this is WRONG. In reading more about it and speaking with people on the trail, including the two Swiss hikers we ran into, the Daikiretto is serious and potentially lethal stuff. You should bring ropes, a helmet, and be a very surefooted and experienced climber. I'm not saying don't do it, but do your homework first. These mountains deserve respect.

07 November 2012

Until the next time, America.

Barak Obama just won the presidency for four more years. They called Ohio, which gives him 285 of the needed 270 electoral votes. The popular vote is way to close to call (NYT has Florida at 49.9% for Obama and 49.3% for Romney with 97% of precincts reporting. You are an election prima-dona, FL. Officially.)

I'm sitting in my rocking chair, sipping tea, trying to get over a wicked cold, and my apartment is quiet. I voted weeks ago via my absentee ballot. I didn't find a place to live-stream the election, so I've been randomly checking newspapers as the day goes on. I found out about the win about an hour after it happened. There's no one here to even hear it when I say: Woah, Obama won. Amos is at work; life in Japan moves on without a beat. On one hand, it's so nice for my day to be peaceful, quiet. On the other hand, it feels lonely, especially when I see Facebook and Twitter. I think I'd feel this way even if I was unhappy with the election results (shocking, I know, that I tend toward 'blue'). Election day is when I am most proud of America. I'm not one often moved by patriotic sentiment, but I feel nothing but head to toe pride when our nation goes to vote. Civilly. Fairly. The people are louder than the pundits, if only for a few short hours. We don't have to worry about violence or coups. We rise about the threats and violence that so often endanger democracy.  It's a day when I am shining with pride when the world turns its eyes toward the US of A. Whatever the outcome of the election.

America, today you made me miss you. I'll be so happy to be there for the next election. In person.

01 November 2012

My to do list failures.

Well, this is it. It's my self-imposed blog deadline, and I'm just now sitting down at the computer to try and write anything. It's not looking good.

cappuccino procrastination.

It's not a surprise. 'Write a blog post' has been on my list for days now, and with the end of each day, it gets a circle drawn around it and then it's rewritten at the top of the next day's list. That's happened, oh, four times now? To do lists are always so gratifying... until you can't check anything off. I pulled the ultimate OCD cheater move this week when I added easy, already completed items so I could have the satisfaction of checking something, anything, off. That's why 'shower' is on the list. Checked-off, too. I think that's called throwing yourself a bone.

A mid-party and blurry iPhone photo, but I love it anyway.

It's just been one of those weeks. Beautiful, fall weather, Halloween-y activities, loads of sugar and crisp leaves and meandering runs and I can't seem to get one thing done to completion, try as I damn might. My to do lists are growing, and my apathetic-about-to-do-lists husband just wrote a monster one for us to do by the end of the month. It has things like "get a car and Japanese driver's license" and "rescue insurance for Nepal" and "Prep for Mom's visit" with the sub-bullet of "???." Let's not forget the kicker of "make dentist and root canal appointments." Ugh. I took an easy one ("make cookies for potluck"), baked some pumpkin whoopie pies, and wondered to myself if it's time that Bon Appetit decrees a new name, as 'whoopie' can't possibly mean anything but a 1970s Newlywed Gameshow euphemism for sex, and it's up there with 'making love' as one of the most vomit-inducing phrases in the English language. Gross.

a view from my run. not too shabby, nagoya.

Oy, there's still so much to do this week: Sew two front panels on my yukata (and I'm the slowest and possibly worst sewer in the world). I have to tutor a very dapper Japanese businessman in English (which is code for we chat for an hour and he buys me coffee -- I win). I should do the dishes, and my Hal Higdon marathon training program says that I have a long run today AND tomorrow. I hate you Hal Higdon, and I'm already regretting this too-expensive-to-back-out marathon thing I signed up for.

I need to sign in to my friend's dropbox account so I can download pictures of our backpacking trip to the Japanese Alps, during which I took not a single photo; I owe at least two good friends an email to say 'Hullo,' and there is a very important long underwear decision that I am currently wrestling (I've decided on wool, now the questions are what weight, and how much money can I justify to keep my perma-cold and poorly self regulating body temperature happy?) My Japanese tutor comes tomorrow and I haven't picked up my notebook once, despite a very serious promise to myself that I would begin to take. studying. seriously.

Also, I'm due to a Halloween potluck in 17 minutes, and I'm not in my costume yet. Oy is right.

soccer player, red riding hood, and a not-so-very-big-or-bad wolf.

SOMETHING in that up there paragraph should turn into a blog post for next week, don't you think? Wait, what's that you ask for? A super long post about my long underwear decision? Well, I don't want to make any promises here, but I'll see what I can do.* Until next week, my loves.

* Kidding, I think. I'm still wrestling with how I feel about a 500+ words on my base layer decisions.

** Despite the cringe-worthy name, the pumpkin whoopie pies were freaking delicious. Highly recommended.

24 October 2012

A Japanese take on salads.

I love having people visit. I love the company; I love seeing the usually-far-away faces sitting in my living room drinking coffee; I love the special tingly feeling I get in my stomach to know people care so much as to fly across the world to come and see Amos and me. Ah, it gets me, guys, right to my core.

Perhaps what I love most of all is showing people Japan. The way people line up for the subways. The izakayas full of salary men. The fabulousness of Japanese ramen. The efficiency and ease of the Shinkansen. The green soft mountains that somehow look exactly as I pictured them before we moved here. The watermelons that cost $35 and the pearl headbands that also have (pearl) cat ears attached.

When I have visitors, I get excited about Japan all over again. I re-fall in love with matcha and daikon, with department stores and their asiles of mini-sized kitchenware, with the bento boxes and fake eyelashes, with the fish markets, and the Alps, and the fall leaves. It wakes me up from the monotony of living here and reminds me: Dude, you live here.

Sometimes visitors stump me. They ask questions that I used to ask and have since forgotten. They innocently wonder where to get such-and-such, or, wow, don't I miss this-or-that. Suddenly, I'll have a hankering for those things, which is unfortunate since I usually can't get this-or-that over here, and such-and-such requires a 6km bike ride and is five times the price it is back home. (I'm looking at you, peanut butter.)

The thing is, I don't want to fight Japanese food. I don't want to spend all my time wishing I could have a, b, and c, instead of really appreciating the x, y, and z that exist here (I'm looking at you, sashimi grade tuna). I've jumped into Japanese cooking, with miso and mirin in the cupboard, and I'll grown to love things like onigiri and wasabi peas.

But then, these delightful visitors of mine, they ask these innocent questions. About apples. And salads. And once these ideas are planted in my brain, they are oh-so-hard to get out. Which is explain why I went on a wild goose chase for apples this week. Crisp, tart, fall-has-arrived apples, and I needed them to be less than $4 each.

It took a couple days and a fair amount of kilometers logged on my bike, but I've found them. (At this point, let me officially profess my love for the Lawson 100 Yen shop. It's kind of like the dollar store, but so much better.) Not quite as tart or crisp as I'd like, but perfect for Apple Ginger Carrot soup I had for lunch yesterday and a yet-to-be-made coffee cake. I now feel poised to officially welcome in the fall season.

Then there are the salads. My dear friend Emily, a semi-pesco vegetarian who doesn't really like fish and to whom soy gives a mildly upset stomach, innocently asked about salads. The big, hearty, an-entire-meal-in-one-dish salads that are one of the best things to come out of of American cuisine.

In this country of extremely healthy, trim folk, salads seem surprising scarse. Vegetables are juillined into miso soups, lightly pickled as a garnish, or tempura'd next to white fish. All of these are all -- frankly -- delicious, but none has the uumph of a robust salad. One dish meals aren't very Japanese. One dish meals full of raw vegetables seem even less Japanese. I used to hunt for them when we first arrived in Nagoya, then I slowly stopped.... right until Emily planted that seed in ma' brain. It went something like this: salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad.

My little Sun Ace grocery store has lettuce, but it never looks that good. I've gotten it before, sure, but it always tastes a little watery. I dunno. The cabbage, however? Fresh. Cheap. The bean sprouts? Stocked every time I'm there. Carrots? Giant and plentiful. Green onions? Oh so many, and some are even pre-washed and chopped for you. Yes, please.

I combined all of this with my newest obsession of soba noodles. (Seriously. I am eating them about 3 times a week. Poor Amos.)

I threw them together, and Amos had regular soba noodles with a bit of cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like. I, on the other hand, had cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like with a bit of soba noodles thrown in on the side. Soba salad. BAM. Look at me go.

A couple days later, I was flipping through my newest cookbook and came upon -- you guessed it -- a soba noodle salad. It had chicken in it, which sounded pretty good, and red cabbage instead of green, but it seemed pretty similar to mine.

Just like that, I felt very legitimized. Soba Noodle Salad! It's a thing!

It's what we ate last week. It's what I'm eating for lunch today. I made my friends eat soba noodles about five times during the two weeks they were here, and -- for that -- I hope they forgive me. The soba salad seems a way to keep the my salad itch scratched while really enjoying the food that's available here.  I know that whenever we end up back in the States, I'll be well and good until someone mentions something deliciously Japanese (miso! okra! persimmons!) and I'll be off on another wild goose chase. Just wait for it.

Soba Noodle Salad

8 ounces soba noodles
2 blocks fried tofu (my way) or 2 chicken breasts (Real Simple's way)
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp mirin
Squeeze of siracha, wasabi, or shake of red pepper flakes
2 cups cabbage, thinly sliced (I like a mix of red and green. Fancy!)
1/4 cup scallions
1 1/2 cup julienned crunchy vegetables, such as carrots, cucumbers (with seeds scooped out), bean sprouts, radishes, or bell peppers

Cook the soba noodles according to the package directions. Mine package directions are in Japanese, so it's a guessing game of what looks right and what I think the pictures are trying to convey. Basically, bring a (unsalted) pot of water up to a boil. Gently drop in the soba noodles and press down with a pair of chopsticks (Japanese cooking, yo! Get into it!). Cook at a gentle simmer (not a roiling boil) for 6-7 minutes. Drain the noodles and fill the pot back up with cold water. Dump the noodles in and stick your hands in there to wash the noodles. Rub each noodle in the cold water to remove any extra starch. Surprisingly this makes a big difference, so don't skip this step. Drain the noodles again, and give them a final wash in running water. 

If you're using the tofu, slice it up finely and reheat in the oven for about 5 minutes while your soba is cooking. If you're cooking chicken, put some olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Wait a tick, then add the chicken. Cook until each side is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Remove for heat, wait another tick, then slice into strips. 

In a small bowl (or mug, if you're classy and low on dishes), mix the vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger. Sometimes I add some wasabi or hot sauce to this. Taste it as you go along and adjust. It's pretty hard to screw up.

Spread it all out on the counter, and go to town. I'm a fan of more cabbage, less soba, and Amos is the opposite. Add the dressing on top and mix it all together. If you round out the meal with a cold Sapporo or some sake, you have my blessing.

Serves 4-ish.

13 October 2012

traveling (so... brb)

I forgot to mention that I'd have friends in town... And that I'd be taking them around Japan for two weeks... And that I'd not have time to write much. To be fair, they are very good friends and we are having a very good time. I'll be back 'round these here parts soon.

In case you missed it, I was up on east side bride last week, dishing out travel advice on Japan. Dude, you should probably go read it.

To new readers: Hello! Welcome! Yay! 
To those who left such sweet and thoughtful comments: You made me feel very special. Thank you. 
To those who are new expats and a bit lost and lonely: It gets better, okay? I promise.

03 October 2012

Downsides of Expat Life :: Saying Goodbye

Photo © of Flannery O'Kafka via Lapin & Me

I lived abroad once before. It was during my junior year of college, and I studied in Seville, Spain. The program was short but intensive: I lived with a host family, worked at an internship, attended classes, and was completely immersed in español. It was chaotic and overwhelming and did not involve the copious amounts of lounging around drinking Spanish wine and coffee that I had previously imagined. (That was disappointing.) Part of me would do it again in a heartbeat. Part of me wants to throw up just thinking about it. Quiero vomitar.

I was not naive enough to think these two experiences -- living abroad and studying abroad -- would be that relatable. It's apples and oranges. (Errr, maybe more like oranges and grapefruits?). I had no Japanese 101 (or 102, or 204, or 303) to fall back on. Unlike romance languages, I had no lifetime of exposure to Japanese to draw upon once we landed. I couldn't even read! But living abroad, we have relocation assistance, corporate support, a Vonage phone line, our own apartment. No one insists or expects that we speak Japanese for every single interaction. I don't have to call home from a pay phone with an international calling card, and I'm not limited to internet access from a computer cafe (Ouff, dating myself much here?). In Nagoya, our home is ours, meaning Amos is with me and not across the ocean like he was last time. We also are making money this go-round, as opposed to the 'take-a-loan-and-worry-about-it-later' strategy I employed during college. On a probably related note, I have drank more Spanish wine and ate more tapas here than I ever did in Spain. The Japanese seem to have an affection for Spanish food, and I am making. up. for. lost. time.

Living abroad is, in many ways, much easier than my study abroad experience, but there is one thing that was simpler before: friendships. Amigos. ともだち. Everyone in my program arrived at the same time and met in the hotel. Everyone was overly-eager to make friends; everyone was in similar states of overwhelmedness, shock, and excitement. (I know 'overwhelmedness' isn't a word, but it should be, so go with it.) We went through all the adjustments of moving abroad together. We had class together, our internships together, we took weekend trips together. We lived in the same neighborhoods. At the end of our program, we all left within hours of each other.

Life here is so different. Very, very few people are on the same part of their journey. Not everybody gets here at the same time, or with the same company; no one's assignment is the same length, and, heartbreakingly, no one leaves at the same time. While I knew that on paper, it was a different beast to confront in person.  During my first week here, I went to lunch with a fun group of women. Some had been here months, some years. Some were getting ready to move to another international assignment, others to begin repatriation. My newly minted expat soul was crushed when I learned one would be leaving next week, one within six weeks, and another within two months. "Are you kidding me?" I wanted to ask. "But I just GOT here."

It was really hard not to future trip. I wanted to close myself off and ask everyone "How long are you here for? Longer than me? Okay good, we can be friends then."

(I didn't do this, but I really wanted to. I also didn't know anyone, so I decided to STFU and just make some friends already.)

It almost got harder as I made close friends. I've met wonderful people, only to have to bid goodbye to them while I am still living here, with months upon months left on our contract. Our assignment will end before others' and they will have to say goodbye to me. At the end of these teary Sayonara Parties is the daunting task of making new friends: inviting new people to coffee, to get drinks, to grab lunch. You have to psych yourself up to once again push through the initially awkward small talk so you can one day fall into the easy rhythm of friendly conversation. There is the thing you want to do (bitch about it, spend hours on Facebook, become increasingly bitter) and then there is the thing you need to do (call friends still here, invite new people out, brush your teeth). You have to work to keep your heart and spirit perpetually open to people as they pass in and out. Imagine a really, really crowded hallway. People are going to pass you by. Sometimes they walk with you a bit, sometimes they don't. Hmmm... that's not the best analogy. Maybe I should use a revolving door instead? Or a sushi conveyor belt to bring it back to Japan? No, that doesn't make any sense. Oh, screw it. You know what I mean. People come, people go. Everyone is on a different schedule. It sucks.

September was a daunting month, with a very good friend leaving on September 1st and another on September 30th. It reinforced that this is a part of life here, a trade-off to the tapas, Spanish wine, and language support that I enjoy on this go round. "Relax, man," I tell myself, tapping my inner Rastafarian."There are people in front of you that aren't gone yet." There's nothing to do but lean into the temporariness of the situation; dwelling over when everyone is going to leave only ruins the lunch that you are having with them right now.

In a way, carpe diem seems to hold more weight the older we get, the more 'established' our lives become. I remind myself that this is living life on life's terms, and to be present and grateful, which I think means making (uneasy) peace with the revolving door/crowded hallway/sushi conveyor belt. And wine. Lots of Spanish wine.

26 September 2012

How to use a Japanese Onsen

There are certain levels of friendship, like Friends You Grab a Beer With and Friends That Will Pick You Up From the Airport. Then there's the people that are really worth their weight in gold: the Friends That Will Help You Move. (Otherwise known as the people I Give Thanks For.)

I just discovered a new category called Friends You Get Naked With. I know; I didn't know it was a thing either.

Chalk it up to my Irish Catholic upbringing or Midwestern parents or American puritanism but I was not raised in a 'naked' family. I had friends whose families seemed more comfortable with a certain level nakedness, like blowdrying your hair in a bra or walking around without a shirt on, but it wasn't really done in our family. My mom once mentioned that when she was little, the word 'naked' really bothered her, and I completely understood what she meant.

It's not to say my parents and family were anti-naked. It just wasn't really our shtick, right up there with baseball, Chinese food, and classical music. We weren't opposed or against it by any means; we just didn't do it.

Then I moved to Japan, land of the onsen, a word which I only had a basic understanding of when I arrived. This country sits right on top of the Ring of Fire and, in a country the size of California, has 25,000 naturally occurring mineral hot springs. Bathhouses are built around the springs, and water is pumped into pools and cooled to a variety of temperatures, from hot-hot-hot to a cold plunge. Some pools are inside, some are out. Some are made of concrete, some look like giant planter pots, some are landscaped to look more natural, with rocks and flowing water. These are onsens, and they are an integral part of Japanese culture and have been for hundred and hundreds of years. It's both a noun and a verb: you onsen at the onsens.

It seems for almost every activity, there is a scheduled onsen after it. Hike? Then you onsen. Ski? Onsen. Raft? Onsen. Stay in a hotel? Onsen.

I wasn't sure about the whole thing, and the first couple times I avoided them. Not only for the naked part -- which is intimidating enough -- but also because of the RULES. I knew there were extremely strict ones, and I had no idea what they were. Breaking the rules is one of the easiest ways to Piss Off Japanese People, so I skipped the onsen.

I finally broke and went to one in Takayama, near the Japanese Alps, after a day of sightseeing. It was connected to the hotel, and there was an English pamphlet that clued me in on onsen etiquette before I showed up. I wasn't hooked, but it felt pretty good. No one else was there, so I was okay being naked.

The next time was post-Fuji, with a group of hikers, including some Japanese women who made sure we all were onsen-ing correctly. This was my first time going with friends. All naked.

Surprisingly, not as weird as I thought it would be.

I went rafting up in Gifu with some good girlfriends. After rafting? You guessed it. Onsen. The onsen was outside, and we sat in the pools under cover as the rain poured down on us. We chatted for about an hour, sitting in the hot water. It was really fun, this naked hanging out. I was beginning to see the appeal.

Most recently, my friend Anna showed me an onsen just north of Nagoya. It was more extensive than the others. This one had the standard inside and outside pools, but it also had a milk dipping pool, a cold plunge pool, and an electro-pulse pool that send waves into your body as you got close to the walls (so weird...). It had a sauna room where you could exfoliate (!) with a salt scrub (!!). You could leave the onsen area, wearing a completely unflattering pajama set, and head to a lobby that had a series of separate rooms each heated to a different temperature that purported to have different healing and health benefits. You set your towel down in the rooms, usually over hot river rock, and laid back in total silence (aside from some cheesy flute and harp music, which apparently is a universal requirement for 'spa ambiance.') We spent the day there, relaxing and sweating, refueling with water and juices before ending the day with sushi and soba noodles.

Can I state the obvious and say that it was at this moment that I became a total onsen convert? I think the sauna and exfoliating may have gotten me. Or the way my lower back felt after the electric pulse pool. If those two things hadn't won me over, laying down on hot river rocks at 57° C and feeling my whole body sweat out toxins totally did. It was amazing. My body felt so good.

I also realized something about the onsens and a culture that is more comfortable with nakedness:

There are no perfect bodies.

To be honest, that's what always kind of threw me about the naked part. I was always self conscience that it would be awkward to be in a room full of naked people. I assumed that I would be focused on my imperfections: cellulite, pouchy stomach, body hair... the million little things I fixate on if I a compare myself to women I see in movies and magazines. Plus, I live in a country of thin, beautiful Japanese women. I'm intimidated by them enough when we are all wearing clothes. Being naked next to them? That sounds about as appealing as, I don't know, being naked next to Gwyneth Paltrow (who would look good naked and be insufferable).

But here's the secret: thin, beautiful Japanese women also have cellulite. And pouchy stomachs. And saggy spots. Everyone looks different while naked, no one looks perfect, and no one looks bad. Being in an onsen was refreshingly healthy for my self esteem and body image. Here was a host of other 'real women' (ugh, what an awful term) and they looked so normal. So non-sexual. So natural. So... well, it was not was I was expecting. It was really, really easy to be comfortable in there.

The onsens in Japan seem to be a community gathering spot, a place where women (and men) relax quietly, chat with friends and family, where mothers wash their daughters' hair and vice versa. It seems to be one of those places that we always talk about as something that holds the ills of society at bay; a place that, if it existed in America, Fox and Friends would always be harping on about, probably something along the lines of the War on Onsens by the Liberal Media.* ( * Um, I don't watch Fox and Friends, so this is a guess.) It's a community touchstone, for sure.

For those that are, like me, a little nervous about the onsen, here is how you get down:

Onsens have separate areas for men and women, and tattoos are not allowed. (I think there is a tiny bit of leeway for gaijin but no sleeves or large-scale ink. If you are discreet and it is small enough to easily ignore, usually you're okay.)

1. Enter the locker room. There will either be lockers or baskets for you to place your clothing and large towel. Get naked and grab your small onsen towel (which is the size of a hand towel, but a little thinner. You probably can buy or rent one at the front desk).

2. Enter the onsen and wash up. There are shower stations with a seat. Sit here, soap up really, REALLY well, scrub yourself with your towel, and then rinse off a couple times. Showering well beforehand is how the onsens stay clean, and if you do a good job, no older Japanese women will look at you sideways. Otherwise, you will be shunned because you entered the onsen dirty, which is kind of a dick move.

3. Enter the onsen. Each pool has a different temperature. Some have bubbles, some are milky with minerals, some have electric pulses that are for muscle relaxing. Just go slowly, keep your towel out of the water (put it on the side, around your neck, or on your head), and if you don't like a pool, you can just get out. No big deal.

4. Once you're done onsen-ing, rinse off again. This is when you can shampoo and condition your hair.

5. Wipe off with your little towel, then head to the locker room to dry off completely and get dressed.

6. Eat out to the lobby to drink water, rehydrate, and eat ice cream (a real must for any onsen trip). Try not to fall asleep right then.

19 September 2012

Japanese kindness.

Two weeks ago, I received a call. It was my first day "on-the-job," which is how I refer to my once weekly volunteer position (which is not so much a day but a two hour window. Anyway! Semantics!). I was at work when a woman called and asked for me. She briefly reintroduced herself. I had met her once before; she was a friend of a recently-departed-from-Japan-friend, and she wanted to know if I had any any plans for this Friday? There was a dance festival and a friend of hers was a performer who had given her two tickets. Would I like to come?

"Of course; that will be fun," I said, reminding myself to speak slowly and in simple sentences. I have a tendency to talk quickly, words upon words falling out of my mouth in a jumbled pile, a trait that drives my dad nuts and can make it difficult for non-native American English speakers to understand me completely. (Is 'native American English speakers' a thing? Anyway, you know what I mean).

We decided to meet up that Friday at 11:30, near a department store downtown. I was there early, and grabbed a bite from the kombini. My new friend, Eiko-san, showed up right on time, carrying with her a Burger King lunch for the two of us. I immediately regretted my 7-11 choice. For a variety of reasons, some about Japanese politeness, some about how my Mama raised me, some about the length of time it's been since I last had BK, I knew I was going to be eating two lunches.

We walked the couple blocks to the theater, and I immediately realized that this was a bit of a bigger deal than I had thought. Not only was I the only gaijin I could see, we were among the few not dressed in full kimono. The lobby was full of orchids, donated from prominent area businesses, arranged along all the walls and spilling in to the foyer. Older Japanese women, scattered in groups, their salt and pepper hair done up tightly, in complement to the delicateness of the flowers.

It was at this moment, amid all the beauty, I was so thankful I put on a skirt. Lesson to self: this is Japan. ALWAYS overdress.

We made our way into the lobby and picked up our tickets. On the way in, Eiko-san introduced me to her friend. He used to be her dance sensei, and it was he who brought the Odori Dance Performance to Nagoya in 1945 as a way to cheer up the city in the post-war malaise. This whole performance was happening because of him, and his gravitas was apparent. He hoped I enjoyed the show. I thanked him and hoped that I was able to convey my thanks.

Eiko-san, from the moment we entered, constantly made sure I had everything I needed. Any question I had (Are pictures okay? Can we eat in here?) she would find out the answer. She was on her feet in a flash, then back down, pointing me to the bathroom, translating the program, explaining to me the Odori Dances as best as she could.

The building we were in was quite deceiving: on the outside, it's mundane 1970s architecture, but on the inside, the theater was beautiful. Molded wooden waves on the ceiling, tapestry curtain, rough hewn wood walls. It was a breathtaking blend of modern and traditional Japanese esthetics and utterly captivating.

I ate my Burger King in my seat because I am nothing if not classy.

As Eiko-san took her seat a couple sections away, the older Japanese women around me took me under their wing in the ultimate older-Japanese-woman-way: they watched me out of the corner of their eye and if I even hesitated even for a second, they gently made gestures and suggestions. If my eyes scanned the program, she would gently point out which dance we were at. When Eiko-san would bound over during an intermission, they would confer with her online dictionary for the precise word to describe the ancient dance.

All this, and we had just met each other.

- - -

People told us that the Japanese are polite, but not especially warm. While I do think that is a bit true, I've noticed that it doesn't take much to scratch that surface and find a wealth of warmth, wanting and excited to show you their life and culture.

There's my Sensei Noriko-san, who invites a host of expat women over to her house every other week to show us how to sew yukatas (summer kimonos). No payment, no nothing. She does it simply to share her craft. She also calls doctors' offices, helps read Japanese notices, and answers question upon question that we bring to her. She and her husband, Daiichiro-san, constantly put together events, shuttling us from maguro (tuna) cutting demonstrations and fish market tours, to calligraphy classes, to fireworks shows and walking tours, all things we would miss should it not be for them. (For my friend Anna's take on Noriko, read this. It's beautiful.)

There's Ted-San, my new coworker, who just happened to have two extra tickets to an Ikebana Exhibit, and would Amos and I like to attend? And, if I don't mind him asking, what does the phrase "you betcha" mean?

The kindness I have met in this country -- the generosity of spirit from people who open their arms and welcome me in, even though my Japanese is terrible and I am simply a visitor -- is astounding. Humbling. I hope that I would do the same should I ever find myself in that position, though, to be honest, it seems like people here make the opportunity for kindness. My experience has created a little section in my heart that beams with love and loyalty for Nagoya and Japan, who, when I arrived, asked me to come in, take off my shoes, and stay awhile. For that I am truly grateful.

13 September 2012

How to Stay Cool in the Japanese Summer -- (You guys I figured it out!)

Okay, I didn't figure it out 100%, but I'm getting closer. Let's back up a bit, shall we?

First: Mushi Mushi (蒸し蒸し). That's how you say 'humid' in Japanese.  It seems to roll off the tongue and perfectly capture the hot, sticky mess that is Nagoya in the summer.  Mushi-atsui so desu ne (むしあついそですね). Hot and humid, isn't it?

(I haven't quite nailed the translation for 'Bloody hell, it's hot as balls out here' but I'm working on it.)

I'm so ready for the transition to fall, and while there may be hints here and there -- cooler nights, cloudy mornings -- it seems the summer weather is hanging on for a bit. Hello, 34C. Hi, 90% humidity. No, I'm not sick of you yet. Please excuse the bead of sweat, dripping down my thigh.

On the upside, the cicadas are gone. I don't mean to celebrate death or anything, but YAY. The surround-sound racket that enveloped me when I walked outside my apartment has subsided. I no longer have fleeting visions of Biblical locust plagues when I walk through our local park. For this, I say Hallelujah.

Ug, I'm sorry. I certainly didn't mean to be posting a photo of a dead bug of my blog. Instead, I really wanted to post a photo of this (and please excuse the blurry hand. How not professional am I?):

I have spent the last several months wondering how on earth the Japanese population, on a overly-generalized whole, looks so pulled together during the hot summers. I would see businessmen in crisp, white shirts, sans tie and jacket but remarkably well dressed. I would see young mothers in shorts with leggings underneath, arms covered from the sun with light cardigan sweaters. I'd nearly collide with older ladies biking in fully jeans and dark sun-visors pulled over their face (and it was almost always my fault for being distracted by them. They, somehow, can still see everything perfectly). People seemed ubiquitously armed with a hat, umbrella, and sweat towel. Linens were unwrinkled, foreheads dripless, and no one seemed to have mysterious stomach or back sweat.

No one, that is, except me. My little Irish ancestry was not happy with this whole situation. Face ruddy, forehead damp, hair frizzy, and sweat FUCKING everywhere. It was pretty gross, you guys.

I tried my best. I layered tank-tops under flowing shirts to try and stay more presentable. I carried a handkerchief. An umbrella. A fan. Wore silk pants. I  still can't count the number of times I had to head home to change after I had sweated through the torso of my (loose fitting, dark colored, highly breathable) shirt.

When my sister was visiting this August, I fully realized how inept my heat-strategy was. We were sightseeing around Kyoto, and while I had gotten better at being in Japan, I hadn't nailed this whole hot weather business. Obviously. I about died. (We pulled through thanks to frequent stops for kakigōri and Sapporo.)

Dying of heat. In a World Heritage Zen Garden.

Then. THEN. Back in Nagoya, I had to run to the drugstore. And I found it.

The cool section.

Woah. There is a business for this keeping cool routine. Special scarfs. Blotting paper. Pads for underarms. Portable fans. Special ice-cold sprays. Special ice packs for sleeping upon. Heat whisking leggings and undershirts. Inserts to keep your shirt collar stiff and sharp. Mad genius, yo.

Of course, when I can almost taste the apples and pumpkins figs and persimmons, I finally figured it out. Whatever. I'm celebrating the little victories here.

When you add these amazing inventions to tried-and-true hot weather experience, the cool biz programs in place by the government, and the understandable yet revolutionary aversion to the sun, you have an (overly generalized) population that makes summers stylish. This is all the more impressive when you think about the energy savings going on in Japan since March 11. All business' air cons are set to 28C (about 82F), summer breaks have been extended, and business dress codes have been adjusted. All in the name of patriotic energy conservation. It's worked too, for the most partenergy use is down 15% in Tokyo alone.

Amos and I laughed as we browsed the drugstore for all the things that we didn't know about, all the things that would have been so handy if only we had known they existed. If we do end up spending another summer here (my thighs are sweating at the prospect), we'd be so much better prepared. We'd actually own shorts, linen shirts and light dress pants before things got miserable. We'd have the special underwear. The "keep cool" neckties shaped like polar bears. We'd rock that shiz and rise to the occasion of Nagoya 蒸し蒸し. I mean, I wouldn't be opposed to enjoying the 72-degrees-and-perfect Seattle summer next year, but should we have to, at least we would know where to start.

Though its hard to pass up a penguin shaped ice pack. I could probably find a use for that guy in any climate.
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