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.

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!