What have you been doing lately? (Part 2)

Aaa~nd we’re back! I’m wholly determined to get back into this blog. At least… I’m determined for as long as the fancy to write is instilled within me. I’m the kind of person who will drop things for years at a time before picking them back up again. A prime example: A quilt I started back around 2012. I still have it. In a Ziploc bag. Ready to be stitched together. I even brought it to Japan with me thinking I’d have all the free time in the world to finish it!

Mmhm.

…sure.

I focus when it interests me. How self-centered is that?

Whatever. #mood

Friends of a Feather

When I came to Japan, the very first piece of advice everyone around me told me was to make friends as soon as possible. “Find at least ONE PERSON who shares something in common with you. You’ll feel a lot more at ease here.” Sports groups, knitting circles, art get-togethers, park walkers… anything. Many of you will agree, yes?

BUT!

True to my character, I refused. I shunned the idea and thought, “Pfft, why do I need to go find people? They should come to me!” I mean, that’s what my family was always going on about whenever I’d have a falling out with love. Shouldn’t it work the same way with friends? God, what a pompous noodle butt I was… am?

Mr. Yearly the Groundskeeper

At one of my elementary schools, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the groundskeeper. Let’s call him Mr. Yearly. An easy-going man, he was a comfort to me in my new environment when I was first put into that school. We became friendly and I was surprised when he asked me if I had any plans for the New Year.

“Well… no. Not exactly,” I told him. “Why?”

“Oh, I thought maybe you’d like to come over for dinner with me and my wife. By the way, what Japanese food do you like?”

“Um… I guess traditional foods? I really like nikku jyaga.” Truly, I was at a loss for ideas. I don’t do well when people come to me all of a sudden with questions that have too many possible answers.

Fast-forward a few months and I was back again at his house to enjoy some okonomiyaki. It’s a popular enough dish, even outside of Japan, but if you’re unfamiliar with it, all you need to know is that it’s to die for. Side note: I had the opportunity to try true Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki one year for Christmas. I might just have to go back!

His wife was graciously eager to help me out with some unit origami that I was attempting in order to settle my anxiety. But at that moment, I was about ready to scrap the whole project and throw it out the window. Who knew working with something so delicate could be so frustrating!

Oh. Speaking of delicate somethings.

Mrs. Yearly is an exceptionally skilled egg carver. Until now, I had only seen a single documentary about it. That’s where I learned that the dust from an eggshell is toxic. In truth, despite the risks that arts present to their makers, they are a look into the human experience. In the end, Mrs. Yearly was kind enough to remove some of her creations from their cabinet so I could take some photos.

Can you believe that she did all of these herself?!

The rest of that afternoon was spent watching a segment on TV about a teenage correctional program out of Oklahoma, of all things.

I’m starting to see more and more as I take ginger steps out of my uptight bubble that time with friends and loved ones is so incredibly important.

Blueberries for Days

Another outing I’ve had recently involved some down time at a local blueberry farm. Now, if this ain’t a first world problem, I don’t know what is. I was under the impression that blueberries came from bushes. Squat, dense, leafy things! Not these 6-foot-plus trees crowded into a hot greenhouse. No, certainly not.

My image of what a blueberry bu- no — tree — has effectively been shattered.

Anyway, I went with a coworker and her two children. It was funny because the youngest was so in love with them while the oldest didn’t want to have anything to do with them. She pulled a couple of sly ones on me — a few of the blueberries she gave me in an attempt to share were bitter!

We concluded our day with homemade blueberry ice cream (made by yours truly — I’ll share the recipe, along with some others, another time), a simple beef broth soup, and sandwiches. I’m embarrassed to say that the excitement of it all had me passed out on the floor, snoozing.

You snooze, you lose, Slow News.

Inspired by one of the fellows I follow here on WordPress, I thought I would type out a quick update on my life.

Slow, indeed! My days seem to pass as thickly as molasses. There is no pressure to complete work and projects. I didn’t mention in my last post, but school is to be closed until May 6th. Classes are to resume May 7th; however, the Hamamatsu mayor said that, should PM Abe extend the duration of his state of emergency, the city will do the same.

So, what have I been doing besides being a lazy blob? Well, I’ll show you.

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I thought I would give cinnamon rolls a shot on… the 19th? Something like that. They didn’t turn out well at all. The yeast seemed to be the culprit, as it had expired a long time ago. Having gone out and replenished my stash, I tried again.

And look at how nice they turned out!

I honestly was so surprised and ecstatic. It had been so long since I had had a good cinnamon roll. Obviously, these were no Cinnabon, but there was something so pleasing about enjoying these.

I disobeyed the whole social distancing thing, hopped on a bus, and went downtown to share these with my friends. Bless their hearts. Carla said,

“Thank you so much Ashley!! They were amazing. … My friend Marie didn’t realise you’d baked them – she thought they were from a bakery!” (she has her own site, too! You should give it a go)

and Mr. M (his ID done been snatched) said,

“They certainly were the genuine article. I’d pay money for those, true fact.”

I gave the tray in the picture to my neighbor down the street to enjoy with her children. She commented too that they were very good. Couple with my various other hobbies, I’m on the sure path to filling, at least part-way, my grandmother’s shoes. That woman is amazing, I love her so much!

Anyway. Yeah.

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Then I tried my hand at chocolate donuts since donut shops are not a dime a dozen around here.

If you want it done, best to do it yourself, right? Isn’t that way it goes…?

At first, I tried frying them, but after I made the oil way too hotI thought it would be best to hang on to the remainder of the dough and try again some other time (it got baked).

It was a rather sticky and expensive experience. One cup of cocoa powder cost me about $4 USD at my local supermarket. As hindsight is 20/20, I’ll have to see what Amazon Pantry has baking ingredients going for.

Leaving the bit about adding chicken-fried oil to the fresh oil aside, I found my donuts tasted better the day after. I suppose the sugar glaze had ample time to soak in and make it taste that much more delicious!

Have you ever tried making cinnamon rolls or donuts? If yes, how did it go? If not, what are your reasons for not trying?

Next up is, after seeing one of my friends enjoy her home-grown garden, I wanted to do the same. I’m no stranger to growing vegetables, as I’ve been successful with cucumbers back home in hot AF Las Vegas. It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, Las Vegas was a flourishing tropical oasis. NOT NO MORE.

Anyway. After digging up… ha.. see what I did there?… No? That’s OK. After digging up some garden starter ideas on the internet, I decided to make a trip to the hardware/gardening center a ways away. They didn’t have much in the way of herbs, so I ended up going with these guys:

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Photo was taken April 27, 2020

I planted radishes, basil, Japanese basil (shiso), and two kinds of lettuces. A long time ago, my breakfast diet was typically eggs and toast and/or hash browns drowned in ketchup. Nutritious, I know. Now, I enjoy a green salad with my eggs (sometimes I’ll throw in yogurt, natto, toast, soup, or some kind of meat too!). This free lettuce buffet will help me cut down on the grocery bill just a smidge.

Have you tried growing a garden before? Let me hear about it!

Lastly, did I mention before that I’ve started uploading videos to my YouTube channel? I can guarantee 100% that it’s the most boring material you’ll ever watch and listen to. But as a challenge to myself, I’ve been reading Harry Potter.

Unfortunately, the videos’ve come to a standstill as I’ve run into a snag with receiving strong enough internet. Thanks but no thanks, corona, you’ve gone and closed McDonald’s. It was my closest provider of speeds capable of uploading a video file. I won’t lose heart though. Some real internet will be in the works once I’m able to secure an installation date, but… who knows how long that’s going to take? UGH.

At least I’ve got some dinky pocket WiFi to tide me over. I’m not a big user, you see.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is staying sane and healthy!

Self-isowhat?

Never would I have thought that I’d be stocking up on non-perishables and learning how to make a mask. Sure, the folks who have believed the zombie apocalypse would be coming all along have been prepared for ages, but what about the rest of us who can’t even grasp the idea? Part of me is still in denial.

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My stash of water, and newly acquired items: tissue, toilet paper, flour, tea, curry rou, udon noodles, chicken stock, rice, canned tomatoes, honey, and dressing.

According to the NHK, Japan’s largest broadcasting network, 197 new coronavirus cases were reported as of Saturday in Tokyo. (April 11, 2020), 674 nationwide. Just before that, dear ol’ Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally caved and agreed to issue a State of Emergency (plus stimulus package!) for the 7 prefectures most currently affected by the outbreak. While many people, including myself, are on the fence as to whether or not his measures will be effective or not remains to be seen.

In wake of this “soft lockdown,” my own prefecture and Board of Education has advised the closing of schools as well. I consider myself lucky in that I’m still receiving pay and my company is working as hard as it can to keep the business up and rolling. Unfortunately, many are not receiving the same kind of care. The General Union, based in Osaka, was kind enough to get the most current information together and put it upon their website.

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The mask that was never finished.

None of us thought we’d be in this kind of situation.

With mask buyback programs in the works (at least in Wisconsin), closeted seamstress and grandmothers working their fingers to the bone churning out homemade coverings, and people walking around with water bottles on their heads, it’s clear to me that there’s some confusion going on. (Seriously, the number of memes on this stuff is lit.)

My real question, though, is: How hard is it for people to understand that they just need to stay home? The closest I get to going out is usually stepping out onto my balcony if I don’t have business to conduct elsewhere. And… by “business to conduct,” I mean go buy craft stuff from the 100-yen store and donuts from Mr. Donuts. HOWEVER, DO AS I SAY AND NOT AS I DO. There are tons of ideas for people to search for on the internet now.

Heck, the activities they choose don’t even need to follow someone else’s plan! They can make and follow their own! This is the age for ingenuity and critical thinking. For too long, as a society, we’ve been soft and comfortable with our sheltered lives!

TLDR; I’m feeling guilty over my conduct lately while all my friends and family have been so good about self-isolating.

Seriously, though. I want some donuts.

A Weekend Diary: Dilly-dallying Depression and Fried Food

This weekend was interesting in that I tasted the rainbow when it came to emotions… and I didn’t even have to eat any Skittles!

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Usually, I’m preparing and giving an English lesson on Saturdays except that this time, my student e-mailed me to explain that her daughter was placed in in-home quarantine. If you’re thinking Gasp! It’s the coronavirus! you’d be right… but also wrong. The daughter is completely fine, but because of the insane amount of paranoia running rampant in this country… cue the eye roll.

I was antsy, energetic and desperately wanted to get out of the apartment on Saturday. So, I did something weird: I donned some earrings, my denim jacket, and boogied on to the mall that’s FOREVER AWAY but whatever.

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Once I got there, a sense of apathy rolled over me. The lights were on but no one was home. When I saw the puppies in the pet shop though, I perked up a smidge. Every one loves them a puppy.

Over the course of a few hours, I leveled up my life experience by cruising the whole length of the mall, eating some good tonkatsu (sorry, no photo), and gorging myself on some bomb donuts from Mr. Donuts (Dunkin’ Donuts for the rest of you). Unfortunately, I think being out and exposed overstimulated my system and I arrived home with a splitting headache.

Sunday, too, had me in bed with a headache, but for a different reason. I won’t go into it here; however, tears were shed on two different occasions. Depression man… Just when I think I’ve got it under control and have achieved some kind of stability, it comes RIGHT ON BACK. Seriously, I wasn’t expecting it. As I tried to work through it, I suddenly had a craving for some 唐揚げ (からあげ, karaage).

Not a little craving. A BIG craving.

Coming home the night before, I had seen a place that looked newly open. It was hoppin’, too. Well, needless to say, I hunted it down on Google Maps. It’s a place dedicated to fried chicken goodness, からやま (Karayama). It hails from my favorite area in Tokyo, Asakusa, and I wasn’t disappointed by what I ordered.

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The meal included 4 pcs. of lemon-sized chicken, oh-so crispy and juicy! Rice and miso soup was there too. A larger order of rice could be handed to me for free, but I ain’t into rice that much. The sauces that came with it were a kind of sesame seed something, and some spicy-sweet oil. In the last well, I blooped out some mayonnaise. (Never thought it would be good? You should give it a shot. I mean, ya’ll be dipping your Tostino’s pizza rolls in ranch! …wait. Maybe that’s a me-only thing?). The french fries weren’t part of the package. I ordered them separately.

The grand total for all of that? About $10. And I left completely stuffed and sated. I’ll definitely be back. I got a ¥100 coupon to use!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! …OK, so it’s not the first day of the year, but cut me some slack here. This blog has been quiet for some 6+ months. You should be patting me on the back for getting some kind of energy up enough to even post something.

Snarkiness aside, I have a question for you. Did you get your omikuji (御神籤、おみくじ) yet? How about your omamori (御守り、おまもり)? It’s a common enough custom in Japan that has little to no substance except that, with the new year, it’s out with the old and in with the new.

’tis the season the flock to a shrine or temple and get lucky!

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Omamori can be purchased throughout the year, depending on what you need one for. I only buy and keep one. Last year’s was for good relationships with people. This year’s is a standard safety one. Prices typically range from ¥300 to upwards of ¥2,000, so about $2.50-$18.

Omikuji are meant to be purchased ONCE and, if it’s a good one, it’s to be kept in your wallet or on your person at all times to better preserve the good luck. If it’s a “death will come to your door tomorrow” kind of fortune, you tie it some kind of sacred string the shrine keeps handy and hope for the best. At this point, you’re welcome to draw another lot. If that one is even a little bit lucky, cherish the heck outta it.

Just like last year, my fortune was average.

Most start out with a small Japanese poem. Mine was:

「雪にたえ風をしのぎて / 梅の花 / 世にめでらる、その香りかな」

This more or less translates to “The plum blossom that survives a snowy wind can be admired and smelled another day.” Romantic, ain’t it? Next comes the words of wisdom:

In the beginning, there will be a profoundly sad event, but if you can refrain [from drowning in it?], your mind will open. A confused and disordered heart is a calamity that needs to be calmed.

I’m sure there’s some kind of nuance that I’m missing here, but whatever. The last bit of the fortune talks about specific aspects of one’s life. Mine were as follows:

  1. 願望 (ねがいごと, negaigoto, hopeful wishes) – Late, but will come true. It’s good to try and speak simply (avoid manners of speech)
  2. 待人 (まちびと, machibito, awaiting person) – Will arrive late
  3. 失物 (うせもの, usemono, lost item) – High chance of appearing
  4. 旅行 (たびだち, tabidachi, travel) – Good to refrain from traveling, no benefit
  5. 商売 (あきない, akinai, business) – No risk in dealing with others
  6. 学問 (がくもん, gakumon, school) – Hurry and plan your objective
  7. 相場 (そうば, souba, stock market) – Good! Sell
  8. 争事 (あらそい, arasoi, quarrels) – Speak with your eyes
  9. 恋愛 (れんあい, rennai, love) – Can be enjoyed to a certain degree
  10. 転居 (やうつり, yautsuri, moving) – Good! But hurry
  11. 出産 (おさん, osan, pregnancy) – A safe delivery is favorable
  12. 病気 (びょうき, byouki, sickness) – No worries. Believe in the gods
  13. 縁談 (えんだん, endan, marriage) – Negotiations will be broken off, but after helping (the person? the people?), all will be well

What are some crazy things your family does to welcome in the new year? Do you have any interesting traditions or superstitions? Let me know! Bye for now.

A Weekend Diary: Summer Break (Part 2)

Being alone with my thoughts during this extensive summer vacation, of which ends in one more day (hooray!), has led me to wonder if I’m doing the right things in life. I suppose those are the kind of philosophical mysteries that I’ll never know the answers to. Even historians debate about the correctness of events long after they’ve happened.

Anyway.

In between gallivanting throughout shopping malls, playing PokemonGo, and cooking more food than I’ll actually eat, I participated in the English summer camp a local after-school club puts on every year. I wasn’t around last year to participate, but I hear there was a forest and tons of mosquitoes.

Have you ever gone to camp? I image it to be something like this.

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This particular camp is basically an escape from home that kids so desperately need once in a while to be something they don’t normally get to be. Instead of watching the girls this year, I was thrown in with the boys. Surprisingly, they were easy to entertain and keep happy if one remembered to give them space. I’m assuming we were all the same when we were preteens.

But… what actually happens at an English camp? Activities vary, to be sure, but this schools’ selection is pretty tame. It all begins with welcoming the kids into the school and making sure they’re rounded up, comfortable, and sorted into their groups. Name tags are then made (even though the wisdom of this is lost on me as the tags fall off after 5 minutes).

Board games and funsies came later as we waited for lunch to be made. If there was time, we worked on some kind of performance to put on on the second day. Two groups chose a song and dance, the third did only a song and mine did… a weird variety of things. I believe in letting them make up their own things while I monitor because creativity in this structured Japanese society is so important.

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Taking a quick break to check my phone.

After copious amounts of soda and juice were consumed, it was finally time to pack up to go to the pool. I can’t remember the last time I had bothered to go swimming and I still suck at it as much as I did before. While the latest pop hits were blaring on the radio, we all splish-splashed about, getting ridiculously tired and sun-BURNT. I’m still trying to figure out to this day why only one foot got crispy while the other made it out unscathed. As an added bonus, it was funny as shit watching all the boys run away from the wasps that remained determined to terrorize them on the train platforms.

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Gotta love everyone’s impression what a BBQ should be.

Oh! On the first day, we were permitted to wash up in the spa/hot springs area in the neighboring hotel. Man, I don’t think heaven could get any sweeter. Do you ever get the impression you belong somewhere else other than where you are currently? For example, you might feel you have an old soul and don’t groove with today’s lifestyle, etc. Well! Hot springs were made for this girl and the eucalyptus-scented waters were hard to give up. The ice cream at the end of it was nice, though.

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Strawberry-flavored shaved ice with frozen berry topping.

After going back to the school and having a lovely BBQ dinner, we gathered up the chil’ens to watch a movie. The choices were Lion King, Toy Story or Frozen. Even though Frozen was on the agenda to be watched, the kids unanimously chose Toy Story. Thank you, Pixar. The power you hold to manipulate childrens’ emotions extends across oceans. I suppose it’s a good thing to get the international attention because 100% of the girls and boys under my partial watch weren’t born yet when the first installment to the series came out (1995 to be extact!).

I had forgotten how cool the first movie was. As I got older, I developed a kind of… complex (?) against Tim Allen and Tom Hanks. Their brand of comedy and gimmicky behavior wasn’t my cup of tea, but perhaps it simply wasn’t flavored with the things I prefer. What was even cooler was that two of the ALTs who were attending the camp alongside me had never seen it before. To see them touched just as the kids were was something special to experience. When I go back home, I’ll have to make sure to get the 2nd movie to complete my set and that’s only if the VHS for the first one is still up and running. Man… I’ve still gotta turn all those tapes into DVDs but I digress.

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A mixed sandwich and Coke for lunch. The fried pork cutlet was fresh this time and oh-so good!

Even though I won’t see most of those boys and girls ever again, their faces will blur into the fun and fine memory soup that I’m sure all of my experiences in Japan will culminate into. Sitting here, it’s hard not to become proud, sentimental, and content with the hand I may or may not have had in their lives. I guess I can only hope that their continued encounters with people of other cultures and backgrounds will convince them that the world isn’t as scary as the main Japanese cultural mindset wants them to be.

Another Year, Gone

Aa~h, the hustle and bustle of preparing for graduation. Another year, gone. Like every school in Japan, I sit here at my desk and watch the other teachers clean, organize, and sort out their remaining business before leaving for new beginnings. Some will retire, some will depart for a fresh school, and some will go home to start a family. While I appreciate Japan’s fight against stagnancy, I can’t help but feel a little sad. It would be a great opportunity to create a closely knitted school body. But I digress. While I have some time and am feeling particularly pensive, allow me to reflect on the closing school year.

Though my memory is foggy, I remember the start of my 2nd year at this school was rushed and intense. It was also the first time I would be entering the lion’s den that is elementary school. All too soon I was making lessons and freshening up my stash of games

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Japanese students studying, courtesy of Google.

and flash cards. Over time, all of the ideas I had to integrate English further into the lives of my students disintegrated. As much as I would like to believe I can still accomplish what I would like to do, I must be realistic.

The Japanese education system is changing. While a Japanese citizen might refute what I observe, I will tell you that the current system is meant to cram as much as possible into a small amount of time. Grades and scores before high school are not highly regarded and thus, students are allowed to skate by without a proper foundation. Japan lives and breathes exams. Chapter exams, semester exams, final exams, proficiency exams, entrance exams, driving tests (and yearly re-tests if you’re a foreigner), certifications, licenses…! I know some of these are necessary, but MY GOD. Can’t they just go off the good faith of a well-placed recommendation anymore?

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A student I helped after school with speaking telling me she had successfully passed her exam while wishing me good luck as well.

Students in Japan are experiencing the push to learn English sooner. It’s becoming a compulsory subject starting from 5th and 6th grades. Elementary school teachers are not equipped with the required knowledge to lecture on grammar and vocabulary. Textbooks are helping though, allowing the Japanese teachers to speak in Japanese while giving the English speaking job to the ALT (i.e. me!). Still, much of the English instruction is falling to many ALTs and it’s incredibly daunting. This article and this article from Japan Times provides a good commentary on the situation.

Despite my school year having been squished with preparation, my time was not ill-spent. I made connections with my elementary school children through playing and drawing. Whenever I walked into a classroom, I would hear a bunch of voices asking and demanding me to draw this and that. I was not left in the dust, however. Many of the younger kids would draw things for me on scrap pieces of paper. I wonder if my happy befuddlement was how my dad felt whenever I’d give him artwork out of the blue.

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This message from a student reads: Dear Ashley, Even though you aren’t Japanese and can’t speak Japanese, I respect you because you tried hard to speak anyway.

I should take a moment to reminisce on what I can remember. All of them start with One day…

  1. I was at the drug store vending machine buying bottles of Coca-Cola for some thirsty JHS kids when a young boy ran up to me to say hello. I recognized him as one of mine.
  2. When I was in the dollar store looking at yarn, a little girl called out to me. We had a small conversation in English and Japanese. It’s funny, though. If I’m seen outside of the classroom still in work clothes, my identity is still confusing to most folks.
  3. I was riding my bike home late one evening and a JHS girl noticed me and said, “Let’s ride home together!”
  4. Another female student, this one having already graduated and entered high school, saw me walking to the 7-11 and said, “Hey, Ashley! I have a part-time job here at this restaurant. Please come and see me sometime!” This was in Japanese and broken English, of course.

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The best memory I have from this year is when a 5th grader told her class during presentations I was her hero. How amazing is that?! I always told myself as a kind of mantra that if I could touch at least one person during my stint as a teacher (heck, during my life even), I could die happy. I truly believe that we take a little of something from the people we meet in our lives.

Osechi: Cooking for Good Luck

Good afternoon! I was just about to post these pictures on Instagram but thought I’d better talk about them here first. While there are plenty of websites that explain what osechi (お節料理) is, this entry will detail my firsthand experience cooking authentic Japanese foods. Here we go!

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This is what $80 at the supermarket looks like. It’s unusual for me to spend this much in one trip, but when it’s the holiday season, you’re just about obligated to. Do you recognize some of the foods you see? All of these ingredients went into making osechi, or “good luck” cooking.

Osechi is a traditional form of Japanese celebration for the new year. Each dish represents something related to prosperity, riches, good health, and longevity. What’s even better is that they are not meant to be refrigerated. Compare that to an American holiday feast where you are bombarded with casserole dishes, giant hunks of meat, and pies once that door opens.

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Here’s a list of what I made. Granted, they were the easiest of what my research coughed up. Disclaimer: you are not bound by osechi rules, therefore only making osechi items. You’re welcome to throw in the foods you like the best like fried chicken, rice cakes, desserts, vegetable salads, etc.

  • 海老の旨煮 (ebi no umani, simmered shrimp)
  • お雑煮 (ozoni, simmered medley soup)
  • きんぴらごぼう (kinpira gobo, burdock and carrot salad)
  • 酢蓮 (subasu, pickled lotus root)
  • 栗きんとん (kurikinton, mashed sweet potato with chestnuts)
  • 筑前煮 (chikuseni, simmered chicken with vegetables)
  • 伊達巻 (datemaki, rolled egg)
  • 茶碗蒸し (chawanmushi, steamed egg with vegetables)

Of course, I did make some mistakes. My Japanese ability is little to none most days and trying to read a full-on Japanese recipe is difficult without taking the time to sit down and translate. And no, while Google Translate is useful sometimes, it does not do a thorough enough job.

Mistake #1: The shrimp
They didn’t come out tasting like the sweet soy sauce I cooked them in. Why? I checked the recipe while eating and saw the words “Ziploc bag” and “refrigerator.” I concluded that these bad boys were supposed to be marinating after being cooked. Whoops!

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Mistake #2: Ozoni
So, I don’t know if this is a rule or something that goes by everyone’s’ tastes, but I needed to grill the rice cake before pouring the hot soup over it. Also, is rice cake supposed get grainy?

Mistake 3: Chikuseni
My girlfriend wanted to eat ramen along with everything else (or later in the night… I’m not sure which) and so, I didn’t have the chicken that was required. Ground chicken balls worked just as well. Wait… does that count as a mistake?

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Mistake #4: Datemaki
This… is why it’s useful to have some idea of what you’re making instead of depending on the sidelined photos to cook by. A normal egg roll is merely a thin layer of scrambled eggs, rolled within another layer. Datemaki is a single layer that has been whipped and bubbled up before pouring it into the frying pan. It was a lot trickier than I was led to believe.

Off camera, I attempted a castella cake. What is castella cake? Ask the Portuguese. That’s where Japan got it from. I ended up scraping one batch and trying again but still… made a disaster. The particular recipe I was following necessitated a frying pan and instead of making a very fluffy cake, I made this rather flat and sad-looking pancake. I thought I could hide it by burying it under a bunch of sliced strawberries and green tea flavored whipped cream.

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All in all, this experience taught me how crucial details are to the Japanese people; how painstakingly they put something together to appeal to all the senses. I’m glad osechi only happens once a year.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Ashley Goes to the Konbini

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As I was eating my food, I realized that I could do a segment on the things I buy and try out. Unfortunately, the items I’m going to share with you today have already been ingested and are now succumbing to my acid. Wait… that doesn’t sound right. Let’s try that again!

Unfortunately, the items I’m going to share with you today have already been impounded and are currently going through processing.

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…moving on!

7-11 is a thing here and it is quite different than my American counterpart. Two words: NO. SLURPEES. Despite not offering the snacks and hot foods I grew up eating, Japanese 7-11s are dope in their own way. The main reason is the above. If I could live off fried chicken and rice balls for the rest of my life, I would but I’d hate to see what my body’d look like after 10 years.

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The Jell-O dessert.

First up to bat is this “cream soda jelly.” Yes, Jell-O is called jelly here. Which is easier for you to say? Honestly, my mind gets stuck on the #ujelly schtick…

Topped with a cocktail cherry (sorry, it’s not a maraschino), whipped cream, and lemon mousse, it’s actually pretty tasty. I was transported back to my childhood. Story time! Furr’s was a buffet or cafeteria-style restaurant my family would take me to every once in a while. It has since been closed for many, many years. But I distinctly remember their green (lime-flavored, maybe) Jell-O with whipped cream. I think it became one of those must-haves a child always looks forward to.

 

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Once upon a time, there was a place.

VERDICT: 7/10. The dessert here was extremely pleasant. The Jell-O wasn’t overpoweringly flavored. The whipped cream was light. The lemon mousse was en point. It’s probably one of the few Western things Japan is doing better than their competitors. The only downer was that cocktail cherry.

 

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Tuna salad and rice. Who’da thought?

Up next, we have the humble rice ball. Why it’s called a “ball,” I have no idea because in Japanese, it’s called おにぎり (onigiri, oh-nee-ghee-ree). The number of things you can wrap rice around is just about endless, but let’s talk about this particular one: tuna mayonnaise. The mayonnaise in Japan is not Best Foods. Whatever their egg to oil to whatever ratio is, it’s tasty cold or warm.

The rice is fresh and springy; not cold and hard. The tuna is your typical, flaked variety. The mayo is mild and I swear it’s seasoned with something. VERDICT: 8/10.

 

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Goodness on a stick.

Last, but not least is the fried chicken (called 唐揚げ [karage, kara-age]). Made from thigh meat, the chicken is marinated in some kind of soy sauce, sake, ginger, and garlic combination or simply dipped in seasoned flour and fried until golden brown. Instead of nachos or a hot dog, you can buy these babies for about $1.50 each. Their crispy, juicy deliciousness will not leave you disappointed. Just don’t let it get soggy. VERDICT: 9/10 (Maybe I have low expectations, but wait until you try it.)

Honorable mention: Popcorn is popcorn. I’ve yet to eat bad popcorn that I didn’t make myself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my account of konbini food. Stay tuned for the next episode!

What do you mean ‘I’ll get lonely?!’

Disclaimer: Any advice given or situations are from my own experiences. Please take what I say with a grain of salt when comparing it to your own situation.

typingWhen you type into Google “teaching in Japan” or “ALT jobs in Japan,” it may not cross your mind that you’ll be lonely. You can only think of all that fresh, juicy anime you’ll be able to get your hands on, or the delicious foods you can finally try that’ll knock the socks off an instant noodle cup. Japan! Temples, beaches, cute boys, adorable women, fashion, music! YEAH! You find a company you like and click that “Apply” button.

Now it’s time to buckle up and brace yourself for the ride.

im ready

Fast-forward to a month in. Everything is uncertain. You’re uncertain of your choice, you’re uncertain of yourself; so, you call your family and cry. You complain of the prejudice. You complain of the lack of friends. You complain about how the food isn’t what you thought it was. The strings of malicious words are non-exhaustible. Most of all, you’re lonely. Oh-so oppressively lonely.

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Wait… what? “But Ashley, loneliness wasn’t on the agenda.” It never is. “How do I deal with it?” I’m still learning and searching for that answer myself. Ultimately, you have two choices: healthily or unhealthily. Do you want to save yourself from the agony your emotions will cause or tackle it head-on? As for myself, I feel it’s like walking a tightrope. Some days, I’m above my pettiness and others… well, I drown in it.

For the first 7 months of ALT-ing, I felt I was doing fairly well if I took out all the weekends I called back home sobbing. I was connecting with my school and connecting with my students. I was becoming a regular at many of the shops and even made a friend here and there. I certainly won’t knock my time in my original placement. However… but… a part of me kept listening to the niggly peanut gallery. The devil on my shoulder was getting louder. “You could have more friends. You could have more relationships. You could have more sex. All it takes is for you to log on. You’re a pretty girl. Think of all the attention you’ll be getting!” it would whisper.

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Call it confidence or call it stupidity, but I listened to that voice and stepped into the world of online dating in Japan. Yeah, I know. I can already hear your scoffing and see your eye-rolling. Why couldn’t I have been stronger and found other things to put my energy towards? Well… the answer is “Loneliness will do that to you.”

Being in another country with this newfound independence creates a drug-like effect in your brain. You’re free. You’re away from the judgment of your friends and family. I mean, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, right? I can guarantee that there’s so much going on in my daily life that doesn’t end up on my social media.

Without going into detail about that messy thing, I will tell you that life alone in another country is hard. Battling internally with myself has led me to question, has led me to doubt, has led me to self-hate, lowered self-esteem, a bad body image, and has led me to this ugly, clouded room of choices that look lifesaving but are actually there to hurt me. I am literally stuck within my own mind most of the time. “Ashley, you think too much,” you say. Yup, and I’m not ashamed of my problem.

Self-hate

I have discussed my issues with my friends and family attempting to find some kind of answer as to why. Why do I subject myself to this nonsense? This the advice I’ve received (as best as I can remember it):

  1. You need a pet or someone to take care of
  2. You need to ignore what everyone else is doing
  3. It’s normal. Don’t worry about it
  4. You should date more
  5. Concentrate on your hobbies
  6. Stop being so concerned about everyone else

Let’s address each of the points mentioned, shall we?

  1. In regards to pets, I live in a LeoPalace whom of which doesn’t allow animals in their buildings. Whether it’s because of noise or because of filth, I cannot have one on the premises. I did sneak fish into my place though but they don’t have the cuddle component one would look for in a dog, cat, or bird. As for having someone to take care of, that has backfired miserably and I want no part in it.
  2. Ignoring people is successful to an extent but keeping that up 24/7 is exhausting and once that barrier comes down, the world barges in. When I do this, I usually end up having an emotional breakdown. I’m surprised that there are less holes in my walls.
  3. Loneliness is normal, yes, but bone-crushing, fatigue-inducing loneliness with a side of depression is not. It is especially not normal when you’re thinking of ending it all during one of these episodes. (If you know someone who is suffering from suicidal thoughts or are suffering yourself, please do not hesitate to call a friend, a family member, your next-door neighbor, some randomly dialed number, 911 [110 for Japan], or the Suicide Hotline @ 1-800-273-8255 [or for Japan, +81-035-774-0992])
  4. Just… no.
  5. I have way too many hobbies but this has worked a bit. Lately, I’ve been trying to develop a caricature art style and it’s been fun. I’ve also invested money in coasters with the intent to design embroidered Sailor Moon themed sets to sell to the hardcore anime fan. Unfortunately, remaining interested is a struggle.
  6. Being concerned about everyone is in my DNA. For some reason, I’m always extending help to someone in some way. My heart is too big to not to. The downside to this is that I end up not taking care of myself. When I become worried over what everyone else is doing and thinking, it sends me into a funk that takes days to shake out of. I plummet right back into the Negativity Room. When I’m there, I don’t believe anything anyone says. I hear them but I don’t listen

I truly believe that rooms absorb our feelings. Being trapped in my apartment during the day or in times of rest when I’m not sleeping leads to ugly thoughts. I turn into this… awful, disgusting, vicious, spiteful, bitter woman. It becomes hard for me to relate to anyone or anything. I shut off. So, what do I do? I get out. I ride my bike to nowhere in particular. I take pictures of things I find interesting and share them on Instagram. I give my surroundings stories and characters. I let these small moments fuel my artsy-fartsy side and before I know it, I’ve emerged from the gloom renewed.

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Loneliness is tough and it should be taken seriously. Most of all, my advice to you is to analyze why you feel lonely. Finding the reasons while help you in punching the emotion in the face. You and I are smart. We are valuable to someone even if that someone is ourselves. We can overcome this.