Monday, January 31, 2011

One of Those Days

Today is Monday.  Enough said.  Now, the day itself didn't start off badly. I had a great weekend full of recovering from my horrendous cold from Hell. I feel much better now. Work today went fine. It was a easy day with only two classes, plus I got to leave an hour early. This was because I had to go to the Board of Education to hand in some papers plus stop by my work agency and figure out how to set up a new bank account.

Didn't sound too bad.

Well, I caught the train and got to Yorii at 3:34. Walked to my agency, filled out the bank information, found out the Post Office Bank (yes, there is a bank in the post office. Don't ask, because I don't know.) closes at four o'clock (it was 3:57), got in the car, zoomed over to the P.O., opened an account, missed my 4:20 train, ran to the B.O.E. to hand in my paper work, was missing some paper work, ran back to the agency to get the paper work, missed my 4:40 train, ran back to the B.O.E., turned in the paperwork, barely caught my 5:06 train.

Whew.

Then I got back to Ogawa. I went to get my bike in the lot where I always park. Couldn't find my bike right away. Maybe someone moved it...? Anyway, I found it. As I was unlocking it and freeing it from the myriad of others bikes when I heard...a noise...

Have you ever set up lots and lots and lots of dominoes end on end, all in a row, and then pushed one over. I have...except it was with bikes. Yeah. That was fun.

Because I believe in karma and treat others as you would yourself and all that jazz, I picked all the bikes back up. And finally made it home. Where my ah-mazing husband had laundry in the washer, dinner cooking, and dishes going. I am in love.

So I guess today wasn't so bad after all. :)
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Sunday, January 30, 2011

And my tastebuds rejoiced!

There are a few food items that really are a bit tricky to get your hands on in Japan.  Things like tacos, cheese, and pepperoni. Because we have awesome friends and family who love us, we received many a delightful Christmas package bearing joyful tidings of taco kits, cheese, and pepperoni. And there was much rejoicing.

Tacos are absurdly easy to make...but oh! So satisfying. So very satisfying.  We enjoyed this simply delightful taco feast thanks to some dear friends back home.  It was marvelous. With the leftover meat, spanish rice, cheese and tomatoes, I threw together an incredibly tasty chip dip. One can never have too much chip dip in my book.

And then, there is pizza...gloriously dripping with grease.  Slathered with massive amounts of cheese. Oh cheese! How this girl misses you! (Thanks be to God we can actually find decent cheese here. We have to travel for it, but it is here.) This pizza was particularly delicious due to the ah-mazing pepperoni that some of our family sent us for Christmas. It was a pepperoni link that we had to slice ourselves. Such thick, juicy, scrumptious slices of pepperoni have never before been had!

I have said it before, and I will say it again. I love salmon. No, I mean I love salmon. I can't ever seem to get enough of this delicious fish. I took some salmon fillets for this dish and coated them with some flour and lemon pepper before dipping them in a simple batter made with egg yolks, flour, water, and some spices before slipping them smoothly into their bath of hot oil. They cooked like a dream. I finished them off with a lemon glaze. Really easy.  Basically just some ginger, fresh lemon juice, and some water thickened with cornstarch. Then garnished with lemon and scallions. Very tasty.

After all that delicious grease, I figured some healthier dishes was probably a wise idea. I had a huge bundle of leeks laying around, so I decided to put them to use in a potato leek soup. It was super healthy (It even had tofu!), but still managed to taste absolutely divine.  It didn't even need any salt and pepper at the table.
We did garnish it with some excellent Parmesan cheese (sent over by the family). We served it with this side dish I threw together.
Some people say I am crazy...but what can I say?! I adore brussel sprouts. I have, in fact, since I was a kid. Seriously. But really, anything is good when it is briefly steamed, spiced, and sauteed in butter. The sprouts went great with the leeks too.

A very healthy dinner...if you ignore that bit about the butter. But really, what's so bad about butter anyway?

Yum.
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Saturday, January 29, 2011

日本語 (Japanese)


Japanese is considered to be one of the most challenging languages for a foreigner to master. I took a once a week Japanese class my last semester at college for zero credit. My Japanese teacher said that in order to become fluent in Japanese, one would have to live in Japan for seven to eight years.

That's seven to eight years.

And that is only assuming that you work at it and study regularly.  Since my time in Japan I have met foreigners who have lived here for numerous years and never really bothered to try to learn the language and they know next to nothing. Sure, you can “get away” with not knowing much Japanese, but man. It’s no cakewalk, I’m telling you. Especially when you live in the boondocks. You better know at least know your ひらがな、カタカナ、and at least a few 漢字. (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) It makes life considerably easier.

I didn’t really study too much Japanese when I first came to Japan. I knew a little bit. In reality, what I knew was akin to an imaginary tip of an imaginary iceberg. A speck of sand in an ocean of unfamiliarly “letters,” words, grammar…everything.  Fortunately, because of my brief Japanese class, I at least knew some basics. And I knew how to read ひらがな (hiragana), introduce myself, and also a handful of other useful phrases.  This has proved to be immensely useful.

When I started working at Saiei, my previous place of employment, I never studied. I wasn’t allowed to use any Japanese while I taught there. Everyone who worked there was fluent in English, so I was able to really slack off. A lot. And I did.

One of the reasons I was so eager to get a new job in the public schools was because I knew I would be forced into learning Japanese. And I was right. During my first week at my new job, my Japanese comprehension quadrupled. It was astounding.  I was truly immersed. There was no way to avoid learning now. Most of the teachers in my three elementary schools know an extremely modest amount of English. Some know practically none. It makes life intensely interesting.

One of the best things about my new job is that I have time to study Japanese during the periods I am not teaching. My Japanese co-workers are always thrilled when they notice me deeply engrossed in my book of 漢字 (kanji). They love that I am trying to learn their language. One of the vice-principals even got me some 漢字 study materials. How thoughtful!

漢字 is probably the single most difficult aspect of the Japanese language. There are 2000 standard 漢字, and countless others. I am not exaggerating. Karl asked one of his Japanese co-workers how many 漢字 exist. The response was, “As many grains of sand as there on the beach.” That’s encouraging.  To give some perspective, the Japanese teacher at the Junior High at which Karl works knows somewhere around 30,000 different 漢字.  Yikes.

Despite the difficulties of Japanese, it can be fun to learn.  Some of the word are totally hilarious: プニプニ (puny-puny) means fat, ピカピカ (pika-pika) means shiny, and グルグル (guru-guru) means round and round. These words are so much fun! And there are loooots of them too.

I don’t expect to become fluent in Japanese, but I will certainly try my hardest to at least be able to have conversations that go beyond the weather. It’s a good thing I actually enjoy studying.

As the Japanese people say, “がんばってください!” ("gambatte kudasai!") Which basically means, “Please try your hardest!” I am trying...

さようなら!
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Monday, January 24, 2011

鍋-A Taste of a Japanese Winter

So recently, Karl and I found this really great grocery store in our town, 小川町。(That's Ogawa-Machi) The food there is reasonably priced. It's amazing. Now, it is a bit of a trek to get to-a whole 25 minutes by bicycle. (That's opposed to five minutes to get to our other two grocery stores.) Plus it's an uphill ride.

Despite the battle against time and exercise, it is so worth it. The produce is great. And cheap.We have been cooking with lots of produce lately, so this fact is especially exciting for us. Mostly because of a recent discovery...

There is a special dish that is extremely popular in Japan during the winter (冬-fuyu). It is called 鍋 (nabe). 鍋 is to Japan like pot roast is to the Midwest. It is basically a stew with vegetables, meat, tofu, mushrooms (Japan has, miraculously, cured me of my disdain towards mushrooms. Shocking, I know.) and some type of noodles.

The thing that is so great about 鍋 is that there are countless ways to make it. I mean countless ways. When we stumbled into the magical world of 鍋 approximately a month ago, we could only dream of the possibilities yet to come. That was a month ago. We've made various forms of 鍋 at least six times since then. I kid you not when I use the word magical.

鍋 is astonishingly simple to make. Throw some broth into a big pot with your sliced veggies, meat, tofu, etc. and let it cook till everything is tender and cooked through. 鍋 is traditionally cooked and served in a claypot. The pots typically come with their own portable burner. This is so you can keep cooking the 鍋 and add additional ingredients as you eat.

To experience a true Japanese winter dinner, envision yourself sitting on a cushion on the floor. Your legs are stretched out under the こたつ (kotatsu) table. The 鍋 simmering away on the table right in front of you. You are warm. You are toasty. You do not want to move till spring hails the first sighting of cherry blossoms. Bliss.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Day in the Life...


...of an ALT in Japan. 

I honestly cannot recall a time in my life that was routine as it is now.  I get up the same time everyday. I get home the same time everyday. Because I go between three different elementary schools, I do get a nice change of scenery each day.

I am just so struck by how normal my life is now. I just graduated from five years of insane schedules. I do miss college. But I have to say; I do not miss the schedule of a music major with three part time jobs. This is the first scheduled breathing time I have had since…a long time. And I am loving it.

I really can’t believe how fortunate Karl and I are to have had this opportunity of moving to Japan to teach English. Our jobs are excellent. Last Autumn was a challenge with my former job. Working from two to ten five days a week (including every Friday and Saturday) with a two to four hour commute was not so great. In fact, it was horrible. Karl and I never had enough time together as we were working opposite shifts plus my working on Saturdays.  But those days are past.

Thank God.

Working in Japanese Elementary schools is really an interesting experience. Let me take you through a day.

So we live in 小川町(Ogawa Machi) and I work in 寄居(Yorii). 寄居 is about a fifteen minute train ride away. Not so bad. Because of the train schedule I make it to work very early.  Usually twenty to thirty minutes early. I don’t have a choice in this matter as the next train would get me there late. Being late in my world, and in Japan, is unacceptable. I love punctuality, so this works out fine. It also really impresses my Japanese co-workers.

I am typically scheduled to teach three-five classes a day. During the class periods for which I am not scheduled to teach, I usually study Japanese. This also impresses my Japanese co-workers. They understand how difficult their language is for those learning it. They understand because English is just as difficult for them to learn. 

My Japanese is not great yet. So my days are chock full of gesturing, bad English and bad Japanese. But we can communicate. And I am learning new Japanese everyday.

I teach first through sixth graders.  The tiny first and second graders are so cute. I mean to say it is absurd how cute these kids are. It is all I can do to keep myself from sticking them in my pocket and taking them home.

The older kids are fun too. We have lots of fun in class playing games to learn. The English I am meant to teach is primarily simple question sentences and vocabulary.  So I basically just play games with kids during class, depending on the teacher. Some Japanese teachers are very involved and co-teach, and others take me as a break to get other things done. I am cool with either.

Part of the deal as an ALT (assistant language teacher) is that I am required to eat lunch with the students each day. Sometimes the kids are very talkative and we learn from each other while we eat. Others as totally silent. I am the only real-life foreign person some of these kids have ever seen so I guess they have a right to be shy.

Lunch usually consists of a soup of rice or a pack of noodles (ramen or udon), a salad (usually cabbage, cucumber, carrots, and corn), soup (the soup totally varies every day), and some type of protein (fish, eggs, tofu, pork dumplings). Oh, plus a little carton of milk. My stomach and I are getting used to the Japanese portion sizes. And by Japanese portion sizes I mean small. It’s alright for me; my stomach is getting a bit smaller but I am certainly not becoming malnourished. I do feel bad for Karl though. The man is always hungry. I do not exaggerate.

Also, lunch time 給食 (kyushoku), is served in the class room. Japanese schools do not have cafeterias. The students all put on there little safety masks, chef hats and shirts and each one performs their specific duty in setting up for lunch and serving it. The food is delivered to the school each day in containers marked for each class with extremely specific amounts of food. The students push their desk together in groups to create tables. They then pull out their own place mats, chop sticks and cups with toothbrushes. (Dental hygiene is really being encouraged in Japan.)

Before sitting down to eat, one or two students stand at the front of the room and say いっただきます(ittadakimasu), which basically means, “Thank you for the food.” At the end of 給食, the same students conclude lunchtime by saying ごちそさま(gochisosama). Which basically means the same as いっただきます.

After lunch comes cleaning time.  The students all have a pre-designated area they are to clean for fifteen or twenty minutes.  But it’s not just the students who clean. All of the teachers clean, even the 好著先生(koucho sensei-principal) and 京都先生(kyouto sensei-vice principal)  clean.  Everything is always group oriented. All the time.

Also, at the beginning and end of each day, the principal, vice-principal, and other teachers meet and send off the students by the gates of the school.  The students form groups in relation to their neighborhoods. Each group is led by one or two older students with a cross-walk flag. Everything is extremely organized.

I leave school right at four so as to catch my train home. I get home about quarter to five everyday and make dinner, throw in laundry and wash dishes. Karl gets home about five thirty and finishes the laundry I started.  We eat, watch TV or movies, read, and go to bed.  It is so routine. I am still getting used to having such a normal schedule. I am not complaining though.

I am very thankful for such a wonderful life.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

雪 (Snow...)

We live in a place that doesn't get snow. It's kind of sad...Christmas was an odd experience. And I am finding it difficult to believe that it is, in fact, January (一月). As a Minnesotan/Wisconsinite, this feels about like October (十月)to me. Karl and I finally decided to turn our cute little space heater on this month. Since it's, you know, chilly....ish.

So when we went up to Gunma earlier this month we were positively delighted to see snow. We skiied and went hiking around on a snowy mountain top. It was splendid.

The place we went cross country skiing is actually a golf course.  We were totally thrilled to learn that the ski pass and rental was only 1000円。(That's around 12-ish dollars.) There was one minor draw back to this awesomeness.  Our American sized feet.  Karl and I  both needed the biggest ski-boot available. They barely fit me. Which means Karl suffered through three hours of CC skiing in boots one centimeter to small. But there was fun to be had in the snow! So this little issue did not stop him.

Kusatsu is in a mountain range.  The reason that the hot springs exist is because one of these mountains also happens to be an active volcano. I might have mentioned that before. Anyways, it's been years since it last erupted, so there is nothing to worry about. 

We rode a rope way up one of the mountains to walk around and take in the view. It was spectacular.


 There is a famous crater lake on the top of the volcano. It is famous because of its high acidity. It has a pH value of 1.0. Supposedly the highest in the world.  

In the summer, it is possible to hike over to get a closer view of the lake. Maybe we'll go back to check it out then.

It really was great to experience real winter time for at least a little while. Being on top of a snow covered mountain with the sun shining was very cold but very beautiful. If only I had had my mukluks.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

草津 一月 (Kusatsu in January)

During the second week of our winter break, we headed north to Gunma prefecture (群馬)。We wanted to experience a traditional Japanese hotel and onsen so we found the perfect little place called 草津 (Kusatsu). Only after I booked our stay did I realize that I had, by sheer luck, chosen one of the most famous and popular onsen locations in all of Japan. Win!

The reason Kusatsu is so popular is because of the of the onsen. I suppose I should explain what onsen is. 温泉(onsen) is a natural hot spring in which people bathe.  The minerals in the water are supposed to cure illnesses, making onsen bathing a rejuvenating and relaxing experience.

Kusatsu is in the mountains of Gunma. It took us about three hours to get there on the train.  There is a large hot spring source in Kusatsu that exists due to an active volcano right next to the town.  The primary onsen source comes up right in the center of town. It is called ゆばたけ(yubatake).

 
ゆばたけ 温泉 (yubatake onsen)
This source feeds all of the public and private onsen facilities throughout Kusatsu.  There are even little foot baths around town for you to stick your feet in and warm up! So much fun.

This onsen town has been extremely popular for decades. There is a traditional way of cooling the water because it is much too hot to bathe in as it comes from the ground.  Long wooden paddles are used to stir the water to cool it.

The ladies sing a special song to the rhythm of their stirring.


video

There are a couple of very famous onsen facilities in Kusatsu. We checked out a couple. If you are shy, you just have to get over that.  Because everyone is naked. Genders are, of course, separate.  We mostly stuck to the private onsens in our Ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel). They were gorgeous.

If ever you come to Japan...this is an absolute must.
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Friday, January 7, 2011

More on Christmas in Japan...and some cookies.

Christmas is a Christian holiday. With LOTS of commercialism mixed in. I knew Christmas was a commercial holiday, but when I learned about how the Japanese people celebrate Christmas, this perception was elevated to a new level. Read this guys description of the Japanese Christmas here.  He is right on the money.  Christmas cake, Kentucky Fried Chicken, illumination....just read it.

I found myself offended at this type of Christmas "celebration."  I mean, Christians don't celebrate other religions holidays, right?  Now, I am in no way suggesting that Christmas elsewhere isn't commercialized, it definitely is. But I have never before seen or heard of another holiday so widely adopted in a purely commercial way.  I think what really bothers me the most is that this was invented by KFC as a marketing ploy.  Now the vast majority of Japanese people believe that this is the normal way of celebrating Christmas in the Western world.  But it's not. 

Anyway, Karl and I celebrated Christmas with our regular traditions. One of which is baking cookies. Baking cookies has always been a huge part of my Christmas rituals. Since I was a tot, we would visit my mom's side of the family and make sugar cookies, Christmas wreath cookies, spritz, mounds balls, turkish delight, and sometimes more! A whole day was devoted to this delicious ritual. At the center of the festivities was the table devoted to the rolling out and painting of sugar cookies.

Sugar cookies are perfect. They aren't horribly sweet, making it possible to prolong your indulgence. To achieve sugar cookie nirvana, these sugar cookies simply must be consumed along with a steaming cup of hot chocolate or a glass of cold milk. Heaven.


Since I failed to bring along my trusty Betty Crocker Cooky Cook Book, I poked around online until I found this recipe: 

Rolled Sugar Cookies

1 1/2 c. softened butter
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
5 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt

1) Cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in baking powder, flour and salt. Chill overnight. (Important!!!)

2) Preheat oven to 400 F. Roll out chilled dough, one portion at a time. Roll out on a floured surface to 1/4-1/2 inches thick. Cut out with your choice of cookie cutters and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

3) Paint your cookies: To make your paint, separate an egg. Place the yolk in a small dish. Add a t. of water and a couple of drops of your choice of food coloring. Repeat with various colors.  Use a small paint brush to gently paint your cookies. Use sprinkles too!

4) Bake for 6-9 min.

Indulge!!!


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Christmas time in Japan

Christmas here was...different.  Briefly entertained the idea of going home for the holidays.  After looking into airfare prices and collecting out jaws from the floor where they had fallen, we concluded that Christmas in Japan would not be so bad after all. Despite the lack of snow. 

We received many a lovely package from home.  The gifts ranged from pepperoni links and cheese (you have no idea how exciting this was), taco kits, socks, candy, and a Nintendo Wii, to simple, lovely, Christmas cards. It was a perfectly lovely Christmas!

This is the scene from our little Christmas Eve celebration.  We ate a salmon potato chowder that I threw together while drinking a Spumante from Spain and watching "It's A Wonderful Life." It was a charming evening.

Oh yes...there were Christmas cookies too.  :)


Salmon Potato Chowder

Sautee a chopped onion, a half a cup of thinly sliced celery, and some minced garlic in a tad of olive oil. Throw in some salt and pepper.  Let that go till the onion is nice and tender.

Next, pour in 4 cups of whole milk. I added a can of evaporated milk too, for good measure. Season with 1 t. of dill weed. (I used dill seed, which also worked splendidly.) Throw in extra S&P to taste. I like freshly ground pepper, myself. It adds an extra something.

Stir in a chopped baking potato. Bring this to a boil on medium heat. Cream based soups are astonishingly easy to burn. Stir constantly to prevent this.

Cover and simmer on low heat for 20 min.

Next, fold in your chopped salmon fillet. I used three medium fillets. I also added a bag or frozen corn and about a cup of grated cheddar cheese at this point. Simmer this for about five more minutes or until the salmon flakes easily.

Fry up some bacon and crumble. Use as a delicious garnish.

Enjoy!
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