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.
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