Monday, May 23, 2011

Minimal Light, Maximum Smile

I've really been looking forward to this post. I've been snapping pictures of post-disaster Japan for the past month in hopes of sharing what it's like here right now. Like I said earlier, life is back to normal in Tokyo but that doesn't mean that anyone has forgotten about the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima Nuclear Plant situation. The country is in a recession, people are still missing and without homes and the summer heat is coming, which will put a strain on power in the greater Tokyo area. 

By far, my favorite sign posted around my neighborhood, Akasaka. The big type above the adorable pig cartoon roughly translates to "Turn on your energy!" however "energy" here is not electrical energy (that's sort of the opposite of what they're trying to tell us) bur rather, your courage/energy/vigor. I see this sign all the time, but it wasn't until yesterday that I realized that at the bottom it says: 

"We are open with minimal light and maximum smile" 

Though normalcy has been restored in Tokyo, there are some signs of change. Buildings and metro stations are noticeably darker and many escalators are roped off to save power. Signs informing the public of cutbacks in power can be seen everywhere. It is a bit of a graphic designer's wet dream if you ask me. 

Before the earthquake, Tokyo Metro unveiled big shiny TV screens at the entrances of their stations and also on the platforms. Poor timing for them but I like how they're using the monitors to show the daily power usage in Tokyo. This sign basically shows how much energy is being used compared to estimated capacity. 

This is a sign from our local Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is BIG in Japan. I still don't understand it, but they're kind of like a hybrid between arcades and casinos. People sit in front of these pachinko slots for hours smoking and waiting to win. They're a big problem in Japan actually. There's always some sad story in the news about a baby that died because their parents got so into pachinko that they forgot to feed them. They're loud and smoky but also well air-conditioned. Many people say that if all the pachinko parlors in Japan were shut down this summer, we wouldn't need brown-outs. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's not a bad idea. Seems that the Pachinko owners are self-aware, as they are advertising a 25% cut back in power. 

Apparel stores are helping consumers gear up (or down) for the extra summer heat with tips on how to dress properly for the warm weather. Workers are allowed to wear t-shirts and jeans this summer under the government backed "Super Cool Biz" energy-saving campaign. I'm curious to see if women are still willing to shield their porcelain skin under matte black tights this summer. 

More trendy PSAs. The rainbow banner above again uses the kanji for "genki" meaning healthy/robust/vigor. It's basically saying "Be Healthy/Be Energetic for Japan" The "Power Off and Carry On" poster is another favorite of mine since all the morale boosting posters around town are reminiscent of the classic British WWII "Keep Calm and Carry On" advert. (See how I threw in some Brit slang there?) 

Ganbarou Nippon! Ganbare Nippon! Let's Go Japan! Go Japan! 

There is no shortage of "Ganbare" posters in Japan. The verb "ganbaru" is one that you learn early on when you move to Japan. It means "to fight/to do one's best" and Japanese people will say to you a lot when they realize that you don't speak Japanese. It is meant as encouragement and you hear it all the time. It's also used in sports, the Japanese equivalent to "Go Team!" 

I had a hard time figuring out the sign on the right but from what gather, at the top, they're using some Northern Japan slang for "Ganbare" "Keppare Tohoku" is how it reads. I think that's a nice show of solidarity from a small town near Tokyo, Ome. It's kinda like when the Saints were in the Super Bowl after Katrina and everyone kept saying "Who dat dem Saints"

And this concludes the Japanese language lesson portion of this post. 

Even the fashionistas and too cool for school kids in Harajuku are getting in on poster fun. I like their angle of promoting the Red Cross. 

Though it has died down a bit, you'll still see collection boxes at convenience stores. The picture on the right is actually of 2 TV personalities collecting donations at Shinjuku Station. I don't know their names, but I recognized them. The one in the blue coat once had to bounce 10 times on a pogo stick on the edge of an active volcano in South America. 

By the way, if you want to donate, my charities of choice is Second Harvest Japan and you can donate here

I'm sure I'll come across more great signs in the future, but this seems to be a good stopping point. 

Just kidding, I forgot that I wanted to share this JR commercial that makes me teary eyed every time I watch it. It was filmed prior to the earthquake and I don't think it ever aired but I think that it has a nice message in light of everything. This is the debut of the Kyushu Shinkansen route. Kyushu is the very southern part of mainland Japan and even though this has nothing to do with the North, it has a nice message. It really capture the playful and supportive Japanese spirit. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

ABC Cooking School :: A to Z (with a few missing in between)

This isn't actually new news, but I finished my basic bread baking course at ABC Cooking School this past winter. 27 breads - some good, some bad - all under my belt. I really enjoyed my Monday night classes with ABC Cooking School and our favorite teacher, Abe-sensei. So much so, that I signed up for the Master Course. It sounds like a fancy name, but I think it's just a marketing thing. The other options were "Twinkle Course" and "Club Riche". At some point, I'll be making a real baguette and croissants. Hoorah! Now that, in theory, I've know the right kneading and shaping techniques from the Basic course, I can really get some good practice in during the Master Course. At least I hope. If not, it's just more casual/awkward Japanese language practice for me.

I wish I had been more diligent about taking pictures of all the breads we made. Some of them were pretty boring so at the time, I didn't see a reason to document the non-event. In any case, here's a little taste of what the last 9 months of Mondays looked like for me:

A - Kabocha and Paprika Gallette

B - Maple Almond

F - Berry Cream Cheese

G - Spicy Tomato Hearts

K - Pain de Mie

M - Wiener Branch (a personal fave both in name and flavor)

N - Twin (?) Cream Kuchen

O - Honey Cinnamon

P - Pizza Tomato & Anchovy Sauce

V - Mille Tea Raisin (Maybe? I can't figure out the translation on this one) 

X - Stollen 

Y - Cream Custard Pie 

Master Classes 

My first Master class - a Japanese classic! Mushipan (steamed bread...think steam buns) These were mugwort flavor, hence the green color. 

Another Japanese stable, Curry Pan! Fried bread with a curry filling. 

ABC Cooking Studio Review: If you're interested in taking classes at ABC Cooking School and you live in Tokyo, I suggest visiting the Tokyo Midtown branch. They do offer 1-Day Classes conducted in English, so they have a few teachers there that can answer any questions you may have. Aside from the very first bread class which I took with an English speaking teacher, the rest of my experience at ABC Cooking School was all in Japanese. But really, my Japanese is Upper Beginner at best and it wasn't a problem. Monkey see, monkey do and once you get a hang of it, you'll fit right in and learn a lot of Japanese along the way. I would recommend their classes and courses if you're interested in cooking and mingling with Japanese girlfriends and housewives. 

Fried Chicken Carnival + Random Japan

Last weekend, in an attempt to cure a wicked hangover, Blammo and I went to the Karaage Carnival in Yebisu Garden Place. Simply put, karaage is friend chicken. But in Japan, it is coated with a very flavorful batter usually consisting of soy sauce and a lot of pepper, perfectly fried and very popular. Another popular thing in Japan are food "Grand Prix" competitions where cooks from around the country gather to compete for the title of best (some type of food) in Japan. This Carnival gathered the top 6 finishers at the Fried Chicken Grand Prix 2011 so that people in Tokyo could sample the very best.
Basic karaage - salty, crunchy, good. 

This being Japan, fried chicken is eaten with chopsticks. 

A miso flavored thigh. 

My favorite of the bunch - tebasaki - a specialty of Nagoya. 

A dangerous looking wing. 

It was a fun day but unfortunately, the chicken did nothing but make me feel even more unhealthy and disgusting. 

Other random sights from the weekend - a giant Monchichi roaming the streets of Ginza. 

Sure, OK. Typical Sunday afternoon in Japan. 

A ferret on a leash. Of course. 

Giant Koi fish in Kanda at a not-well publicized cancellation of the Kanda Spring Festival. 


Thursday, May 5, 2011

My First Home Party

My apologies to the group of Japanese people in this photo. I don't remember any of your names and I am now posting a picture of you on the internet. If you want me to take it down, please leave a comment! 

This is a bit of a long story, but since it's Golden Week and I don't have to work, I might as well take the time to share it. Awhile back, I was waiting for Blammo in his office building's Starbucks. As I nursed my soy chai latte alone (what a loser!), a Japanese girl around my age sat down next to me.  I apparently smiled at her, but I don't remember that. She remarked upon my iPhone and when I ran out of Japanese phrases to spit out, I quickly told her that I didn't actually speak Japanese. She then busted out some of the best English I've heard from a Japanese person since moving here. 

Turns out, she had studied abroad in the United States. Where exactly? Hayward, California - near, but thankfully not too near my hometown. Now, for those of you not from the Bay Area, Hayward is...shall I say, kind of a dump. No offense to anyone from Hayward, but let's be real, it totally sucks, right? But Japanese foreign exchange students get sent to some wacky places in America and they always come back with glowing reviews of these small towns and funny American accents. We kept on chatting, flattering each others' language skills and sharing stories about living abroad. Eventually, we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways. 

This exchange might not sound abnormal to you, but every time I tell someone in Japan about how I met my Starbucks friend, they flip out. That's because you just don't talk to strangers in Japan. Not in a, "don't take candy from a stranger" kind of way but it's just not common for strangers to intrude into each others lives like that. Also, for foreigners in Japan, it's quite common for Japanese people to hunt you down like prey, in hopes that you'll tutor or help them practice their English. 

In any case, she didn't seem like the serial-killer type to me and her English didn't really need any help. We hung out a couple of times afterwork, getting drinks once a month and recently, she invited me over to her house to make curry rice together. I thought it was going to be a relaxing girls night but when I showed up, so did 20 of her friends. I had just been bamboozled into a Japanese home party!

A home party, if you didn't already know, is the Japanese phrase for a house party. I think it's more like a house party meets dinner party because it's more about eating dinner than getting wasted and doing keg stands. Of course, none of them spoke English so my Japanese was really put to the test. I was asked lots of softball questions in the beginning, like "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" but as the night progressed, the questions got more and more complex. 

"What was your image of Japan before you moved here?" -- I thought it was cool, had good food and lots of robots. 

"What did you think of the Mona Lisa?" -- It was really small. 

"What are American home parties like?" -- Everyone stands, it's really loud and you drink a lot. 

"What's the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap?" -- Umm....

I was also put on the spot and forced to come up with an "American-style" appetizer. If it were up to me, I would have totally busted out some pigs in a blanket or another Rachel Ray 30-minute meal (just kidding, I hate her), but I was handed a packet of spaghetti and various vegetables. The pasta salad I made was pretty flavorless but it looked pretty and everyone was nice to enough to eat it and pretend I was Mario Batali. 

The main course was curry rice, a Japanese staple and favorite to many. Japanese curry is very delicious, but tastes nothing like Indian, Thai, Vietnamese or any other kind of curry you've ever had. It's pretty sweet, thick and not spicy at all. You can throw anything into curry rice and it will taste good. This variation had carrots, beef, chicken, mushrooms, onions and pumpkin. It was very tasty and much much better than my spaghetti salad. 

And of course, like most Japanese gatherings, there was some drinking too. This I'm sure is what led to some of the funny questions thrown my way. Though a bit stressful, it was a great first home party experience. It was unique in that my friend's apartment is actually a family style house shared by 5 girls. Again, this is not new territory for us Americans, but in Japan, sharing a house with complete strangers Craigslist style is virtually unheard of. You either live alone, in a dorm or with your parents. Shared housing and having roommates seems to be getting more popular, especially for Japanese people who have lived abroad. I shared this story with a few friends of mine here and they all commented that the only people they knew that had roommates were friends that had studied abroad in Europe or the U.S. 

And this concludes my Japanese Cultural Studies blog post. The floor is now open for questions. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Mandatory Hanami Post of 2011

You can't have a blog about living in Japan and not write about hanami. The cherry blossom season is short lived which makes it all the more special. This year, many politicians urged the public to refrain from celebrating too much in light of the national disaster. This basically meant "Hey, please don't get too drunk this year. There are people suffering." Very true, but it didn't stop the crowds from gathering and it seemed like a pretty normal hanami season to me. My Japanese friends felt that the country could use a distraction and I have to agree with them. Despite the crowds, hanami season is very peaceful and a great time to reflect on the things that you're thankful for. 

Nakameguro Canal at night. This is the "cook kids" hanami spot in Tokyo.

Every year I try my hardest to catch a single petal from the air. They say it's good luck and I'm a total luck whore. I had never been successful in catching one until this year. Or so I thought! Blammo tricked me into thinking I had caught one when really, he had secretly planted it in my scarf. I eventually did catch one on my own but I must say, it was awfully nice of him to help me cheat my way to it. 

This was my first time to Ueno Park for hanami. Last year, I had a picnic in Shinjuku Gyoen, the other popular park for hanami in Tokyo. It was super duper cold and windy. My parents and sister were visiting and the weather really showed up for them. We had a nice day strolling through the park and reveling at all the beauty. 

Uh oh! Someone bought the Hipstamatic app for her iPhone! 

And someone also finally learned how to use the macro setting on her camera!

I also visited Inokashira Park in Kichijoji for the first time for one last final hanami picnic with coworkers. It was a great excuse to buy this 3-tier bento box that I will probably never use ever again and cute collectible sake one cups. I made minced chicken onigiri and various veggies wrapped in pork. 

Others bought food from a nearby Seiyu, a Walmart subsidiary and go-to store for Western food and candy. 

Inokashira Park is adorable. It has a little river flowing through the center lined with cherry blossom trees. There are buskers and cute cafes inside the park that add to the whimsical atmosphere. 

I found this cute set of sakura themed sake one-cups at the grocery store and couldn't resist. One-Cups are normally associated with drunk homeless guys in the park. It is literally a glass cup full of cheap sake. You just pull off the aluminum top and party. They're pretty awesome and you can get higher quality sake in one-cup form with collectible glasses too. 

Here are some really kawaii ones with Yoshimoto Nara characters. 

Sake is one of those wonder alcohols that I can somehow drink without getting too weird. I still get red and I still get drunk, but it's a more sustainable kind of drunk. And the hangovers are much easier to shake off. Most other kinds of hard alcohol lead to me passing out in public like this lucky chap.