Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Ain't Dead Yet!

Hello everyone!

I have received many (deserved) complaints of late that I have not updated my blog. I am guilty as charged- I think it's been about three months- so here is a quick explanation of what I've been up to, and why I haven't been updating my blog. Basically I've been pretty sick.

(Note: I'm making a conscious decision in what I write here concerning my health. I don't mind sharing the facts of my infirmity as they could have been inflicted upon anyone and aren't especially embarrassing.)

Starting in mid-January I started to notice some signs that maybe something was wrong with my health. I waited about a week, and then finally told my supervisor that I needed to see a doctor. After about three weeks of testing and head-scratching I was diagnosed with "ulcerative colitis." Basically an auto-immune disorder where certain triggers (stress, chemicals, diet, etc.) cause the body to attack the intestines causing ulcers and inflammation. Finally, mid-February the doctors found a medication that seemed to be working and suggested I take at least two weeks off work to heal.

From start to "finish" (this disease will probably flare up again over the course of my life) this entire process of getting rid of the worst symptoms took about five weeks, give or take a week. During that time I missed about two weeks of work. Once I had recovered from the exhaustion that often accompanies a flare-up I felt pretty bad-ass about it. I had just dealt with a fairly scary illness, and worked through quite a lot of it. Unfortunately, despite being privy to the details, my employer was not especially understanding that I had missed so much work.

So, after some thinking, I made the final call that it would be best for me to return to the States after completing my one year in Japan. Illness was a big factor in this, but there were some other considerations as well. I'll do my best to give periodic updates from here on out- I've got four months left here and I want to make the most of them! Finally, if anyone wants more details they can feel free to contact me though any method available at their disposal (carrier pigeon, email, smoke-signal, etc.)

P.S. A big thanks to Maisha who send me the best prehistoric/dark-humored valentine ever! It made me smile when it was otherwise difficult to do so!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A little bit of this and that.

I haven't updated my blog lately, although rather than being a symptom of not having anything to write about I have instead been too busy. Most recently this involved going to the hospital to get some testing done (I feel fine, don't worry!). Being right after work on a Friday, I had all of my school accoutrements with me including Alistair. He stayed in my backpack most of the time, but during a long consultation with a nurse he ended up peering out of my bag at all the goings on. At the end of the meeting I asked my supervisor (who's been wonderful and my interpreter) to explain why there was a stuffed alligator wearing a tie in my backpack.

When I'm not sharing immaculately dressed alligators with Japanese health professionals, I am learning how to live by myself. I've been self-sufficient for a while, but sometimes I really need a second opinion on daily house activities. This has led to some mistakes, the most recent one being an especially pronounced “bachelor moment”. Consider the following:
  • Andrew buys a frozen pizza. He adorns it with additional toppings and feels pretty clever about his culinary smarts.
  • The pizza comes on a Styrofoam tray. It says on the wrapping not to microwave the Styrofoam, however Andrew plans to bake the pizza.
  • Andrew recalls that Styrofoam seems to be resistant to heat, as we drink hot beverages from cups made of the material.
  • Andrew assumes that the Styrofoam tray is for baking on. He puts both pizza and Styrofoam try into the hot oven and turns to making a salad.
  • Andrew checks on the pizza a couple minutes later and find out that He Was Wrong.
With some quick action on my part I managed to save the pizza and then peel the stricken remnants of the tray from the bottom of my toaster oven. I also took pictures; perhaps because I was high on victory and plastic fumes.

(The tray used to be the size of this wrapper...also, this picture really doesn't do justice to the burn marks on it. ^^; )

In addition to frozen pizzas I've been sampling other traditional Japanese foods such as M&M's trail mix. This is an especially good example of how much fun it can be to have a basic grasp of two different languages, because it can provide endless entertainment. This particular bag of snacks had the clever phrase “いろいろMIX おいしいMAX”. In stilted English this might translate into: “A mix of various things, it is delicious to the maximum.”

I'll leave you all on a, jolly, note.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's – Part 2

This is the second part of today's post. Be sure to check out the previous page!

A week and a half ago I was invited to go with a friend to their in-law's house to make mochi. Mochi is a gummy, goey cake made from pounded and kneaded rice. The traditional method of making mochi is to use a mallet and mortar. (I'm talking about a mortar and pestle kind of situation- not an explosive.) However, we used an electric mochi maker. You can mix different ingredients in during the mixing phase, including sesame seeds, powdered shrimp, or something that your host can only vaguely explain as “a sort of dried grass”. 

 (The electric mochi maker steams the rice and then mixes/breaks it up with a blade at the bottom of the bowl. This means that the mochi bounces around a little as it forms up into a large ball. It almost leaped out a couple times!)

 (A large hunk of green mochi fresh from the mixer. We then pulled off smaller pieces and rolled them up with anko, sweetened red bean paste, inside.)

 (We literally ground up shrimp for one of the mochi batches. There was something cathartic about pulverizing hundreds of tiny dried crustaceans.)

Anyway, we had a lot of fun making the mochi, though eating it was more of a challenge. Mochi is so difficult to chew and swallow that very young children are not allowed to eat it. The saying also goes that you know you're old when your children start to cut your mochi into small pieces for you. Supposedly a handful of elderly people die each year from choking on mochi. I don't know if this is an urban legend or not, but after eating a few balls of the stuff myself, I'm more inclined to believe.

The purpose of the evening had been to get together and have a cultural experience, but I'm afraid the entertainment of the evening was supplied by my friend's 19-month-old son and his father-in-law's elderly cat. 
 (The duo, asleep on the heated carpet.)

The cat's name is San-chan after the sandwiches used to gain her trust and affection in her former life as a stray. The toddler's name is Ryu, or “dragon”, based partly on the mess he makes when he rampages. San-chan generally tried to stay away from Ryu while he was up and about, as his attempts to pet her were more or less concussive in force. She was more or less out of sight for most of the evening, which didn't change when we all sat down to have dinner. Ryu was placed in his high-chair and given a bowl of luke-warm clam chowder. In good faith he was also given a spoon, but this didn't see much use. 

 (Ryu doesn't have much in the way of stranger anxiety yet. During our first meeting he trotted over to me and sat down in my lap without much ceremony.)
About halfway through the meal Ryu-kun suddenly let out a squeal of delight from his perch as he craned his neck over the side of his seat. His grandfather investigated and then asked for a damp towel. As my friend filled me in I learned that San-chan had taken to sitting under Ryu's high-chair in previous visits so that she could eat the tidbits that he dropped. Ryu, being obliging, then started to actively drop food for her to eat. In this particular case the cat had sat in one place just long enough for Ryu-kun to drop a toddler-handful of clam chowder smack on the top of her head.
I now know that the antics of toddlers and cats are a cross-culture experience that we can all enjoy.


New Year's - Intermission

Sergeant Alistair's Log, 1-5-2012, 18:29
The badgers are at the very gates even now. All the outposts have fallen to their savage claws. I fear the Captain has gone mad. I privately begged him last night to update his blog to avert the slaughter of our men, but with a savage grin he replied “Let them come.”

This will be my last blog update for a little while (though it will be a double post)- I'm back at school now preparing for when the students return to classes on the 10th. I have also been putting the finishing touches on the New Year's cards I was making. In Japan, New Year's cards are about as popular as Christmas/New Year's cards in America combined. Most Japanese buy fancy post-cards for the occasion, but based on the number of Dragon themed stamps and stickers at the stationary store, others choose to make their own. I was in the latter camp; being a dragon enthusiast I needed an excuse to buy themed crafts supplies. In the end I made about 28 cards and mailed them off/passed them around at school. 

(Here's the stamp I used. It was difficult choosing one out of the 15 different designs!)

(A few of the finished cards. The Japanese translates roughly to “Congratulations on the opening of a New Year. Please tolerate me again this year.”)

It snowed most of yesterday and last night, and while its just slightly too warm for it to stick on the ground I got this picture this morning right before the sun came up.

Also, as a quick culinary update, I tried cooking and eating tofu for the first time last night. As I mentioned on facebook it was a lot like trying to pan fry jello. I'm afraid the Mabodofu I made didn't really turn out, but my life is richer for the experience. ^^;


Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Years: Part 1

Forsooth! The badgers of cajoling have been unleashed upon me by my parents. If I do not make it through the night, sweet Alistair, know that I died a brave man.”

Last night, I found myself unexpectedly in the home of my Japanese tutor enjoying year-end soba noodles and good company. I had gotten an email the evening before asking for my attendance, and even if I had something else to do, this sounded like fun. I was the last one to finish eating because I had also been asked to bring pictures of America to show the family. Having only digital copies I brought my computer, but with the help of technology these pictures were soon rendered in all their glory upon their wide-screen T.V.

My tutor's family (her husband and two daughters aged 11 and 14) listened politely while I tried to explain Oregon in halting Japanese. Strangely, the girls were especially enraptured by the pictures of squirrels from the Capital Park in Salem. While they are as common as pigeons in Oregon, I guess they're a bit of a rarity in Japan.

After my photo montage (“- and here is my family sitting on a sofa and watching TV!”) we switched over to real television- NHK's year end music contest program, “Kohaku Uta Gassen” more commonly shortened to "Kohaku". It is a musical war of the sexes, in which male and female music stars compete to win the evening. Most of the artists were from Japan, but there were a few notable pop groups from Korea, as well as a guest appearance from a certain famous American.

  (This is the logo for this year's Kohaku. This year was the 62nd year the show has run, the tradition started in 1951 on January 3rd, but was quickly moved to be on New Year's Eve.)

My impression of most of the artists were average. There was the usual assortment of boy bands, female soloists, country singers, and the occasional opera star. What is noticeably different between Western and Asian music entertainment, however, is the advent of large female “idol” groups. I suppose these are bands, although some of them are more rightly called this than others. Smaller idol groups are 6-9 women, while the largest, AKB48 has 48. And now for a quick rant:


I will never tell my students this, but I really don't care for AKB48. For one, I'm told that in Japan cute equals sexy in a woman. This means that while, ostensibly, the group's members are of legal age, this doesn't prevent them from appearing in music videos in school girl's uniforms (with the shortest of skirts) or having pillow fights with teddy bears in lingerie. (Seriously, if you thought Katy's Perry's “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” had a risque music video, look up “Heavy Rotation”) It makes me a bit uneasy. There's also the practice of having the fans vote every year on who the members of the band get to be, who gets to be in music videos, singles, etc. Finally, the band members are forbidden to have boyfriends, and can be fired if they do decide to fall for someone. In the end this creates a group of scantily clad young women in their early 20's who must constantly vie against each other for popularity, while also creating the illusion that they are all available for lucky fan boys. Ugh. I do not envy them.

But, now that I have indulged in some feminism, back to the Kohaku. There were a couple singers that I really liked. One of them was Sachiko Kobayashi, an Enka, or Japanese country music, singer. Kobayashi is in her 50's now, but is a little like Madonna in terms of maintaining popularity. In her numerous Kohaku appearances she has also garnered a reputation for wearing costumes that would make Elton John jealous. This year, she appeared on stage wearing a sequined gold dress with a matching crested swim cap. Halfway through the song, the head of a Chinese Lion rose up around her, followed soon by it's body. As the dramatic music rose, Kobayashi reappeared on the Lion's head as the body began to dance around in time to the music. It was all very inspiring.

(In China, the lions dance to scare away evil spirits at New Year's. I suspect her dress could have done the same ^^; )

(A previous year, a different dress/giant animal to ride on- I've been finding these photos on Google.)

Late in the evening a more familiar face took the stage- Lady Gaga performed two songs, playing the piano for the first and dancing for the second. “You and I” and then “Born this Way”, the second of which is being hailed as being the new GLBT positive anthem of the age. I think it can apply to anyone though, as it tells people to love themselves no matter how strange others might see them. 

Anyway Lady Gaga danced around a gothic stage set dressed entirely in black leather and sequins, singing about “being beautiful in my way.”  In that moment a strange feeling overtook me...

...I was proud to be American.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Cats and Curiosities

Hello everyone! Pending a shift to more normal hours on my part, I will probably continue to post blog updates in the small hours of the morning. I've been shuffling through some old pictures, and thought that I might start tonight's entry off by discussing the Japanese “cat cafe”. Many Japanese live in apartments, and of those apartments many do not permit the residents to keep animals. To fill this need, many people turn to cat cafes where they can sip a beverage of their choice while luring the feline inmates over with tidbits of dried fish. 
In Sanjo we paid about $11 (each) to spend half an hour with the cats armed with a tin of fish flakes. The experience was nice enough, though it didn't quite live up to expectations. The cats at this particular cafe didn't really suffer to be petted unless they were straining to reach a tidbit held in the other hand. Still, it was fun to interact with animals for the first time in months and the cafe had a variety of cat breeds that I hadn't been able to get a close look at before.

 Cat in a box.

 "I am less interested in the camera than in the bit of fish in your other hand."

Nikki managed to pick one of the cats up, but the cat wasn't particularly interested in staying there.

Next, I've gathered quite a collection of photographs of things that range from droll to incredibly strange. Once again, I'll let the pictures do most of the explaining!

 The green bell peppers I buy always have a little creature on them made from the vegetables in question. This one is reminiscent of Alistair.

 I think this stuffed animal is meant to be a capybara. But I'm not entirely sure.

 "This is a nice hot deli from Pizza Hut. It makes you smile and be happy! Enjoy the deli while its hot. Try with pizza! You will surely say, 'Great!'"

 I've never met such a forthright garbage can before!

 The earnest question this sign posed made me smile.

Woe unto him who does not enjoy the style of his socks!

 This has got to be the most philosophical trash can I've ever seen. It also seems to be a little dark humored to be asking someone about the direction of their life while they're throwing something away.

 This is the tower at the World's Fair grounds in Osaka. To me it looks vaguely like a penguin .

Most takoyaki shops have banners like this. Never before have I seen an octopus so happy to sell me his...balls.

 The stickers read, from left to right: "I am ready for cattle mutilation." "I have janky switch in my brain." and "I become an ogre if I go berserk."


And now you know how internet memes like this get started!

I'm not sure who made this...but I believe “very demotivational” ( was involved.

That's all from me morning. Please post your comments! I'm interested to see what everyone else thinks of my findings!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Antiquity...and hungry deer.

Tonight I returned to my apartment feeling cold and a little footsore. However, with a camera full of pictures and a head full of tales it felt safer to get it all down before I went to sleep. Firstly, it snowed a little here in Kyoto the day after Christmas, but it was too warm to stick. When I first came here someone said that it never got terribly cold, though it was very windy. For the most part this is true, although the wind definitely makes up for the lack of sub-zero weather.

Keeping the cold and wind in mind, I bundled up in my scarf and my new hat (resplendant with pompom), and traveled with my friend Nikki down to Nara. Nara is famous for being the first capital city of Japan in addition to having famous temples, more history than you can shake a stick at, and...deer. 

(The bucks all had their antlers sawed off and rounded. I found out why quickly enough.)

 (While they were born a long time ago, there were still some deer that were clearly still babies).
The deer were definitely my favorite part, although they were pretty pushy. Most of the deer have been taught to “bow” for treats (which you can buy for 150 yen pretty much anywhere) which consists of bobbing their head up and down. This is most similar to the head bobbing I do in the office when I need to use the printer, so I decided this behavior was bow-worthy enough to get treats. The does and fawns are well-behaved enough, but the bucks had a tendency to head-butt to get your attention. It wasn't hard, and thank god that their horns had been sawed off, but after a couple blows I was starting to get bruised. Fortunately, Nikki (being more assertive than I), found that firmly shoving away the pushy deer got them to behave quickly. Especially when they saw the well-behaved deer getting all the treats. 

(Like all wild pokemon, deer know four different attacks. “Bite” “Take-down” “Double Kick” and “Headbutt.” These attacks are super effective against little girls and old women.)

After being thoroughly accosted by deer, Nikki and I went to go see the Todaiji temple. This Buddhist temple is both the largest wooden building in the world, and holds the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world. I took many pictures, so it is probably easiest to just caption them to give you a run-down of what we saw.

There are deer up until the inner temple grounds.  On of the deer grabbed my ticket, so I had to wrestle with it to get the ticket back. This caused great amusement for the other visitors ^^; Thanks to my latent deer-handling abilities, however, I got my ticket back in one piece.

 The last/main gate to see the Todaiji grounds. Please note that you can buy tickets here, and do not need to bother with a joint ticket to also see the museum, unless you really want to.

 This building "The Great Buddha Hall" or "Daibutsu-den" is really huge. It is, after all, the largest wooden structure in the world. It has also been burned down twice in various wars. You can see models of the earlier temple buildings/grounds in the back part of the current hall.

Please do not confuse the "Daibutsu-den" with "Dobutsu-en". On is a sacred icon and world heritage site, and the other is a zoo.
 I had heard that you aren't allowed to take pictures inside of the temple itself. Surprisingly, this was not true. I stopped after a couple of photos though. If you want to see the 6 or so other statues and the miniature replicas of the old temple grounds (still a good 20-feet wide in small scale) I suggest you look them up online or plan a trip to Nara itself!

One of the enormous wooden pillars that supports the building has a hole cut in it that visitors are supposed to squeeze through if they want to be blessed with enlightenment in their next life. Nikki managed it, though after she barely made it I decided it was best not to try myself. Enlightenment aside, I suspect that the temple monks needed some form of entertainment for themselves when the tourists started showing up.

We also visited two museums, the Todaiji Museum and the Nara National Museum. If you're going to visit only one museum (and I recommend that you do, as they overlap quite a bit) I would recommend you go see the Nara National Museum, as it has the most depth and variety. The museums house artifacts found on the old temple sites when they were burned down/destroyed in various conflicts. As such, the bulk of the displays are scrolls, small sacred objects (such as altar implements), and paintings that are often darkened from age. 

(Nara International Museum, with thanks to for the image)
While I did not find the museum exhibits anywhere near as exciting as the deer, there were a couple pieces that caught my eye. The first was a painting that illustrated the equivalent dieties/holy figures between the Shinto and Buddhist pantheons. As someone who was raised with Western monotheism and “thou shalt have no gods other than me, or else” I found this quite profound. I'm not sure if the undertones of the piece said “look, it's okay to participate in both faiths” but there also seemed to be a lack of follow up paintings featuring the previous artist's hands/head/unmentionable pieces being chopped off. It has always suggested a deep religious insecurity to me that blasphemy/heresy/how-dare-you-see-god-in-a-different-way-than-me-dammit has ever been a capitol offense in the West.

On a less theological note, almost all of the scrolls were written strictly in Kanji (complicated Chinese characters) which I found really exciting. This is because 1. I'm a huge geek, and 2. It shows a distinct period in Japanese history when Kanji was used by (male) scholars, katakana was used by men (to a lesser extent), and hiragana was used by women. One of the reasons why “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book” survived to be so popular is because they were written by women, and thus in hiragana. Hiragana is a phonetic script (unlike Kanji, which can have several different readings per character), so it was easily read and didn't suffer as much from the transition into modern Japanese (in which all three character sets are used). At least, I recall this as being accurate from what reading I've done. There is an odd chance my Japanese literature professor may be reading this blog, in which case I would like to concede that some of this may be pulled, academically speaking, from my ass.

That's all from me today. In closing, I would like to admit that I bought more souveneirs than was probably wise. Most of them deer themed.