Signs I’m Becoming Comfortable

This list was started two days ago during a quiet evening as I was chewing on my dinner. Adaptability is definitely an animalistic trait and I consider myself proud of it. Have you ever thought about how you cope in new surroundings? These are the signs I’m slowly becoming used to being in Japan.

1. Accumulation of convenience store (コンビニ, konbini) chopsticks and spoons

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Okay, so I only have 2 pairs of chopsticks and 1 spoon but still!

2. Getting excited by the baseball games on TV
3. Letting the dishes pile up in the sink
4. Braving late night trash take-outs

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I’m convinced there’s a dead body in there every time I go out at night.

5. Saying 痛い! (itai) instead of “Ouch!”
6. Borrowing umbrellas from school
7. Leaving rice in the rice cooker
8. I don’t think 50ºF is freezing anymore
9. I have humidity absorbers everywhere

10. I carry plastic bags in every pouch “just in case”
11. I have a bag for collecting said plastic bags

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I’ve even thought about organizing them by size this morning.

12. I attempt to replicate school lunches
13. Buying cookbooks

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I have 9 of these fuckers.

14. I have a regular grocery store (with point card)

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I can redeem the points for cash.

15. Starting to scope the sales ads for deals
16. Any notes I take are in English and Japanese
17. Getting used to hanging my laundry outside to dry

And just last night, I went to eat some peanut butter and was confused as to why it wasn’t Japanese peanut butter. There’s a big difference and I’m finding I’m preferring that over American peanut butter. Blasphemy!

School Lunch

Behold, the school lunch! Called kyushoku (給食) in Japanese, it beats out what I used to eat growing up. I’m already recalling the nightmares about the microwaved grilled cheese sandwiches and leftover Special K.

The meals pride themselves on being balanced.  Carbs, fiber, and meat are what make every child in this country fired up and ready to go. That day just happened to be chicken curry, rice, edamame salad and some kind of pickled vegetable. I often find myself trying to emulate what I eat so I can escape from the grocery store with more money in my wallet.

Every day, the beverages are the same: green tea (for teachers only) and milk. Remember me telling you how fatty Japanese milk is? The proof is there on the carton. In the area my local lunch factory operates, I’m served the same lunch no matter which school I’m at during the week. All of Japan, though, dishes up its food in various ways. No tray is the same.

As an ALT, I can either eat with the students or in the teachers’ lounge. I’m lucky because I get the chance to experience both. I wish I could say hanging with the staff is an exciting time for me but I usually turn my thoughts inward and attempt to focus on not falling asleep. Being with the young ones proves to be a similar thing but every once in a while, they will surprise me and ask me questions or chatter about me amongst themselves.  Through this one-sided interaction, I’m slowly becoming approachable. Miracles don’t happen overnight!

Here is the breakdown of my lunches with the teachers:

  1. Sit down to the meal presented on my desk.
  2. Quickly analyze if there’s anything I’m unfamiliar with.
  3. If there’s anything wonky on my tray, I’ll ask about it and attempt to eat it.
  4. If I’m confident about what’s staring up at me, I usually scarf it all down.
  5. When there’s something of obvious foreign origin, there is a giant soup pot in which I can dump my food (if I eat it and don’t like it) or I can leave it for someone else to eat (if I haven’t touched my food yet).
  6. There is no “Thanks for the food!” (いただきます, ita-da-ki-masu) or “That was delicious! Thank you!” (ごちそうさまでした, go-chi-so-sama-deshi-ta)

 

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Shishamo fish: eggs and everything. Courtesy of David Cox.
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Herring. Courtesy of David Cox.

 

Here is the breakdown of my lunches with the students:

  1. Walk into the meeting room.
  2. Find my tray (I know because it has my name on it).
  3. Journey to whichever class I’m assigned to eat in and sit quickly.
  4. Wait and…
  5. Wait and…
  6. Wait some more while the students on kitchen duty serve everyone.
  7. Finally! All the students have their food!
  8. The class leader says “Let’s eat!” and it’s a race to the front to get whatever leftovers that are well… leftover (I’m usually grabbing more rice because I think they think I don’t eat much. They can tell my butt that).
  9. We all chow down.

Clean up is the same no matter where I go. Soup bowls go with the soup bowls, rice bowls go with the rice bowls, and the head bone is connected to the neck bone. I never did figure out where everything goes after that.

A post about busy nothings, there are more to come.

Jumping Jellyfish and Bouncin’ Bars


I’ve got chills and they’re multiplyin’! And I’m losin’ control for the power you’re supplyin’ is electrifyin’! I’ve certainly got chills, all right. Autumn has swept through the mountains of Gotemba with a vengeance not in the form of hail and catastrophe but with a slanting mist. If it were any colder, it would have been snowing. My hair and clothes become flat in no time. Unfortunately, there has been no changing of the leaves to mark the coming of the season. They’ve just been dropping dead on the ground like flies, riddled with black spots of rot. The spiders have yet to leave. In the meantime, today bodes rainless.

On Saturday, I took my friend Toby up on his offer of joining him in Numazu for a get-together. He was pleasant enough to introduce me to his companions (Yoko-san, Aiko-san, and Kaoru-san) and we had a grand ol’ time. The girls were eager to introduce me to various aspects of Japanese cuisine at this little ramen-yakitori shop next to the train station. As a side note, yakitori shops are amazing. Oriented around appetizer-sized meals, you can share and eat and not get overwhelmed by portion sizes. It was definitely a night of firsts.

To begin, up was a glass of Coca-cola. Harmless, right? I had to explain to Aiko-san what would happen if she told the wait staff she wanted to drink a “cola.” Next came the edamame and pot stickers (餃子, gyouza). Those were things I was familiar with and chowed down on with no problem. The following addition was intestine (もつ, motsu) soup. In my head, when I hear “intestines” or “tripe,” I see this gelatinous pile of white goop all shiny and translucent. Never having had it before, there was no basis on which to compare this tantalizing tongue experience. Simmered in a broth with burdock root and green onion, it looked like any other kind of soup with chicken or beef in it. I will never forget how everyone leaned forward in anticipation of my reaction. Boy howdy, it was delicious! I worked on two bowls of the stuff.

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After some conversation with my dinner mates, a plate was brought out to us that appeared to have sashimi on it. Laid out a bed of onions with garlic and ginger on the side, I was prompted to request identification on its origins. They replied, 「馬です。」(“Uma desu.” It’s horse.) At first, my American sensibilities were in conflict. There was a brief tug of war on whether or not I would be betraying anybody by eating an animal my country deems as special. My adventurous side and hungry stomach won. Placing a bit of this and a bit of that on a slice of meat, I liberally lathered it with soy sauce and wolfed it down. Chewing ponderously, again, as everyone was transfixed on the O Unaccustomed Opinion of the American I thought it was quite tasty but nothing I would prepare for myself.

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There was some debate that followed about Japanese and Chinese stereotypes on who ate what animal.

I won’t go into too much detail about the kim-chee, Korean pickled cabbage. I like pickled vegetables, but not kim-chee. Sorry, Korea. I don’t appreciate spicy things.

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We thoroughly stuffed our faces and enjoyed each other’s antics. I even fought over some octopus with Toby. All too soon, it was time to be scooting along to the bar: Merry Go-Round.

This was SPEC-TAC-U-LAR! Walking in, you wouldn’t even think it was a bar. Decorated in everything old school, I was transported to something akin to a cool uncle’s garage. There were signs, gas tanks, an old slot machine, mannequins, kewpie dolls, neon lighting, lava lamps, and Spiderman toilet paper. Our bartender, Wataru, was even dressed up in a black bowling shirt and pompadour. If you’re looking for a joint to bring a few friends without the publicity, I recommend this place. I also suggest you play the small drum set that’s next to the door. To complete the picture, disco ball-type lighting was flashing and tambourines were provided.

 

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A panorama of the bar.

 
I’ve only sung karaoke once in my life and that was when I was attending high school and it was required. It’s funny how being alone and having friends makes a difference. Not a drinker, I still managed to get drunk off the happy vibes my newfound friends were throwing helter-skelter. All too soon, I found myself singing off tune to Blondie’s Call Me with Toby backing me up. Some ballads and a few Disney songs (I managed to find) were belted out before we moved onto Japanese numbers. I was able to find the only Japanese song I know relatively well: Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki (the original title is this:上の向いて歩こう, Ue no Muite Arukou; I Look Up as I Walk Along). It’s a 1960s love song. Throughout, I was served Coca-cola with a twist of lemon, cooked chestnuts and popcorn.

This was a night of firsts and it was all great fun. See you next time!

 

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さようなら!

 

At the Supermarket

As my impatient stomach waits for its breakfast to finish cooking, I thought it’s about time to introduce you to my food excursions in the supermarkets of Japan. Yesterday was a boon for me because I was escorted by my coworker, Toby (Anecdote time! I have to put this in there because it’s cool to me: Toby was born in Zimbabwe and went to university in England. He sticks out way more than I do and it’s hilarious to watch the looks of awe we receive when we go out together. Plus, he gets points because he knows who David Bowie is) to a few stores in Numazu. Numazu itself is as close to being a coastal city without actually being on the coast and is a 40-minute train ride south from my apartment. Unlike Gotemba, this is a true city equipped with skyscrapers and bright lights. It even has a seedy Red Light District. It brings to mind old Japan: dirt roads damped with water lined with wooden houses, sliding shoji screen doors, rooms perfumed with the scents of nature and dainty paper lanterns hanging from the lintel.

I’m sorry. I digress. As I was saying, it’s about time I show you how I’ve been faring in the food department. Surrounded by another language, you might think it’s hard. It’s not too bad once you take the time to really look around. Japan is obsessed with pictures. My hunch is because the arts were a popular thing in their history: from archaic doodles to ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the Japanese were constantly surrounded by imagery.

My first shopping trip after coming to Japan was one of necessity. It wasn’t a leisurely stroll to assess the opposing party; no. It was a grab-what-you’re-familiar-with-and-run sort of thing. I believe I went home with carrots, potatoes, milk, apple juice, oranges, bananas, eggs, bread, butter and chicken.  The second trip produced garlic marinated beef and bacon. Somewhere in there, I procured cabbage, mushrooms, seasoning packets and Frosted Flakes. The Frosted Flakes I was particularly happy about. My latest shopping trip produced quite a bit and has gotten me thinking about meal planning. Because of the humidity and the unavailability of central air conditioning, food spoils fairly quickly. Just this morning, as I drank my apple juice, I noticed a blob of viscous mold swimming around. Let’s see how long it takes for my stomach to realize what I swallowed.

The following illustrates the latest shopping trip and my sudden panic at making sure everything I buy gets cooked and everything I cook gets frozen or eaten right away.

 

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Left to right: Green tea Oreos, tamago cookies, canned peas, and corn, Japanese mayonnaise, and tartar sauce.
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Left to right: Frozen broccoli, Earl Grey tea, vinegar, ketchup, meat marinade, Caesar salad dressing, and sweet pickles.
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Left to right: Pineapple juice, tomatoes, eggs, chicken, and pork.
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Left to right: Cooked peanuts, Pepsi, Frosted Flakes, celery, and Downy (called Aroma Jewels here) laundry scent.