Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I am staying in my third cousin's house.  Her mother in law lives on the bottom floor and I share one of the vacant rooms in the grandmother's quarters with the butsudan (shrine to the family's ancestors).  Every night I pull my futon and comforters out of the closet and make my bed and every morning I put them away again.   After I put my bed away and go upstairs for breakfast the obachan (granmother) comes into the room and lights incense at the shrine and says prayers to the family's ancestors.  

Every night my third cousin draws a bath in the upstairs big bathtub and the whole family takes turns washing.   The Japanese style is to first scrub yourself down until you are squeaky clean and then get into the hot bath for relaxation time.  It might seem strange that everyone shares the same bath water, but if you really clean yourself first you aren't making the water dirty at all.

Admission:  My third cousin commented that I didn't wash my hair very often - all the Japanese women I have known seem to wash their hair every day compared to my every three days... four days?  So now as I am finishing my bath I run the hair dryer so they think I have washed my hair every day!  Ha, I know this is really silly... but who wants to be the dirty girl?  I don't agree with washing my hair every day, so this is just for them... oh, what Japan makes you do sometimes.

And, above: this is the obachan using the kotatsu, a table with a heater underneath that you put a blanket over to keep the heat in.  It is like a dream in the winter time to curl up under this table!
Ok, so last night we had sukiyaki.  Sukiyaki involves grilling meats and vegetables in a sort of sweet sauce made with shoyu (soy sauce), mirin (rice cooking wine), and sugar. Here are the dishes laid out in preparation for the meal.  
Mushrooms (shitake and enoki), tofu and noodles made out of sweet potato and rice.
You put this small grill on the table with a cast iron skillet and everyone sits around the grill and one or two people cook the foods.
My cousin's husband seasoning the meat.  Mmm.. so delicious and so much delicious beef!  I really like this cooking the food at the table and eating it right as it is finished.  So interactive!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tucking in!

Since the moment I landed in Tokyo I have been at the mercy of my extended family and their willingness to stuff me full of delicious Japanese foods of all varieties.  They seem to think I am joking when I say I am going to weigh the plane down on the flight home, and it fact I need to stop making comments like that because it only seems to flatter them into loading me with another helping of the most delicious steak/sashimi/noodles/fried delicacy that you have had in your life.   

Above is a picture of what mochi looks like in its block form.  Ok, so to make mochi, rice is pounded until it becomes a giant glutinous ball and then if willed other things can be added to it (this mochi has sesame and raw peanuts) and then it sets and turns into the hardest rock ever.  When you are ready to eat it you cut it into thin slices (or most often you buy it in sort of a thin sheet and slice it, or it comes already sliced) and cook it from there.   You can cook it many ways, in a toaster oven or over an open flame or in a frying pan, and it puffs up and gets all gooey and warm inside.  Then you dip it in a mix of sugar and shoyu (soy sauce) and woot woot, that's a good chewy ball of pounded rice!
Ready and waiting to be eaten at the New Year!  It is traditional to eat mochi at the New Year to bring vitality in the coming year, but if you just type in "mochi death" into your preferred search engine the horror that can come along with the New Year's consumption of mochi is easily revealed!  A Japan Times January 3, 2007 article sites "sixteen people ranging in age from 65 to 91 were hospitalized after choking on mochi Monday and Tuesday, including two fatalities, and seven lost consciousness and were in serious condition."  Haha, the first thought that comes to mind is how my dachshund wolfs down his food without chewing, so mochi + wiener dog must = certain death! Yikes, I'm chewing slowly, fear not!
That metro really lulls everyone to sleep!
New Year's decorations.  Everyone seems to be caught up in the madness of cleaning and decorating for the New Year.  I am not really going to try explaining the significance of each element other than they all mean health and happiness in the new year and all that jazz.  Everyone is putting pine branches on either side of the entrance of houses and putting various white and red significant flowers in the house.  Cleaning family tombs and adorning them with fresh flowers, arranging traditional menus for New Year's Even and Day, sending cards and packages and preparing to drop some yen in the New Year's sales.   The hustle and bustle of this holiday has really swept me up and I feel so lucky that not only did I get to have Christmas but now it is the New Year and it is one hundred times as exciting!
Kaiseki ryori.  The other night some of my even more extended family invited me to a fancy dinner in Ginza for kaiseki ryori.  This style of eating is the Japanese haute cuisine consisting of many very exquisite dishes.  I only got a few pictures (and sorry, they are mostly not in focus which I am going to try to blame on the nihonshu (sake) I consumed), so it is hard to get the feel for how many amazingly detailed dishes we were served.   Ok, so wikipedia is going to do the quick trick here: 

"In the present day, kaiseki is a type of art form that balances taste, texture, appearance and colors of food.  To this end, only fresh seasonal ingredients are used and are prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor.  Local ingredients are often included as well.  Finished dishes are carefully presented on colorful plates that are chosen to enhance both the appearance and the seasonal theme of the meal.  Dishes are beautifully arranged and garnished, often with real leaves and flowers, as well as edible garnishes designed to resemble natural plants and animals."  

Ok, to be honest, I think that description above could be applied to almost all Japanese food, but kaiseki in particular takes the appreciation of fresh ingredients and simplicity to the next level.  Though difficult to tell from my pictures...
This was a small stew of oyster, fugu (the poisonous puffer fish), tofu and vegetable.  The broth was rich and incredibly flavorful.
Japanese radish on a bed of sashimi with broccoli flower and Japanese mint flowers.
All of the dishes were very beautiful and hand painted.
Agh, this picture is so terrible, but it was the most interesting tasting dish!  A creamy puree of mushrooms and radish with some really rich fish on the bottom.
This was my favorite dish.  Starting on the left, a pickled ginger shoot and fish, roasted mushroom and slightly spicy pepper and wagyu beef with watercress.  Oh man, I didn't know what beef should taste like before I came to Japan!   Wagyu is a beef that has an incredible marbling of unsaturated fat and one of the highest percentages of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (thank you wikipedia)  in any kind of beef, and therefore also is the tenderest, juiciest most melt-in-your mouth animal that I have ever had the pleasure of eating.  Wagyu is also the beef that you hear about being massaged and fed beer to increase its flavor and fat distribution.
Soba noodles made with green tea.
A relative showing off an exquisitily painted rice bowl.
And now, the opposite of kaiseki, Japanese American food.  Japanese people love omu-rice, which is an ommlette wrapped around some kind of flavored rice.  Oh, and they also love these fried "croquettes" (creamy potatoes often mixed with shrimp, chicken or crab and deep fried).  For some reason I can eat way more of this Japanese fried fare than I could eat at home, but then again, check out this double chin I am developing!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Kagoshima Escape! or, Christmas in Tokyo

Ok, to start, the English teacher's I work with at one of my schools gave me this New Year's present that says "Lucky wish you every a lot of happiness" and I thought it was a joke, because you know, they are English teachers for crying out loud and so maybe they would catch that kind of Engrish, but nope.  For real.  It was the last straw.  My lasting homesickness called for a flight from my conservative MidwesternJapanese town to Tokyo!  About effing time. 
This is my luggage waiting to board the airport limosine.  Psyche! Yeah right, like I have this LV duffel!
Kissing Kago goodbye!  Seeee ya!
Yes! Tokyo at last! So refreshing to see fashionable people everywhere, and SO many people!  Shopping, shopping and more shopping.  
Unlike the funny Christmas decorations in Kagoshima, Tokyo's Christmas felt very familiar, and well done!
The infamous Christmas cake.  People put in orders for Christmas cake months in advance, and because we hadn't my cousin and I stood in line to get our very own for Christmas cake for ages.

I suppose the Christmas cake is borrowed from various European traditions, like the French buche de Noel, but I had to explain to everyone that we don't really eat cake for Christmas in the US and A when they all looked at me expecting me to be the Christmas cake expert.  Uh, apple or pumpkin pie anyone?

The rush to buy the perfect cake.
My cousin made a huge Christmas Even dinner, roast beef and potatoes and all!  I threw in some crostini, but of course there was sashimi and other Japanese foods as well.
The Tokyo metro.  Everyone is always texting, or watching tv or movies on their keitai.  Call me old fashioned, but I am not that into watching tv on the go all the time.  I guess it passes the commuting time.  People are also really quiet on the subway and I find myself missing NYC's subway performers, though I really doubt that would fly here.  
It is a strictly followed rule that everyone in Tokyo stands on the left side of the escalator.
The Tokyo metro map.  Aside from being in a crazy different language it is the most confusing metro I have ever been acquainted with in my life!  Holy hell! I can't make heads or tails of most of it - you have to make so many transfers and there are always one million people everywhere.  Man, I am really working hard on making sense of it.  I really have respect for huge cities that have figured out how to manage and move such large populations of people.  Ha, Tokyo is the exact opposite of Delhi or Calcutta... there is order and it is a pretty clean city without noticeable pollution.  
A museum full of old stuff and foreigners.  I guess going to history museums isn't the hot thing for young Japanese people to do.
Yes, it is winter here.  Cold!
This is a market called Ameyayoko that reminded me of being in NOT Japan.  It is full of people yelling out prices of goods and various ethnic foods... like being in an Indian market but without fearing for my possessions and body.  I can't tell you how wonderful it feels to be in a place with action, with diversity of people, smells, and noise!  It has been driving me crazy to feel so isolated in Kagoshima!
Strawberries on a stick!
The Asakusa market Senso-ji Buddhist shrine.  An old merchant district of Tokyo that one of my cousins lives near.
Out of focus, but that is basically what I look like.
All of these shops are full of great knickknakcs, but I restrained myself, mostly.
And of course, lots of sweets!
Noh masks.  I want them all, what great expressions!
One of the shrine's towers.  Night view, yeah!
This is fugu, a super poisonous puffer fish that is a favorite delicacy for winter time feasting in Japan.  Chefs have to train numerous years to learn to remove the poisonous liver in the correct way.  I met with my second cousin's family and we went to a snazzy fugu speciality restaurant in Ginza where we had a full course of fugu cooked in many ways.  There was fugu sashimi, fugu salad, fugu kara-age (like tempura), and a fugu nabe (like stew).  (Wikipedia told me that because these fish are really violent they often sew their mouths shut when they put them in the tanks together!)
Each table has a heating element so you cook the stew yourself on the table.  They bring a pot of broth and the meat, vegetables and tofu and you cook and serve yourself.  I really enjoy this interactive eating!  Ha, this fugu was so fresh that the pieces were moving!
Me, watching the pieces of fugu moving in the dish.
Me and the Swiss banker my cousin's daughter is marrying.
This was my favorite discovery of the night.  It's called fugu hire-zake, and basically they take the fins of the fugu and roast them until they are crispy and put them in a cup of hot sake.  At the table they light the sake on fire and then you drink it!  I know this sounds weird, but it has this incredible smokey flavor that mixes with the sweet sake and I think I fell in love.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scanning things at work

Today is a day that happens often at work: I come to school and the English teachers ask me: "Kelly, have you heard about today's schedule?" To which I always answer, "No," because no one ever tells me anything at my schools. They then answer: "Today classes are cancelled because it is Sports Day Part II, or a speech contest, or a nurse is coming to give sex ed., or there will be a lounge jazz performance all day." Faced with the unpredictability of having classes or not, I always come to school armed with lots of things to keep me busy. Or, I kill a lot of time on the internet.

Today I got the chance to use the school's scanner which is circa 1999, so the image quality could be better ( I think it just adds to the beauty of these images).

My mom recently sent me this copy of Sunset Magazine's 1989 Thanksgiving edition. I have always had a deep, deep guilty pleasure for Sunset. Everytime I am at some friend's family's house I take a peek at California Coastal weekend getaways, the top ten hiking spots of the Southwest, Fall cookie recipes for the office, and new patio designs for my updated Santa Monica bungalo!

These images and their attempt to capture some kind of southwestern fusion remind me in their super saturated way of these postcards we found at the Bargain Barn of foods from the 60's and hung on the wall. Oooh yellows and reds, I want to you eat you!

The cover. I have been using these images in lessons about Thanksgiving at one of my schools. But I am afraid that the pictures haven't been making my students too thrilled about our Thanksgiving foods...

Ok, so why use this 1989, vintage piece of cultural history, other than the fact that these foods look amazing? That blonde, sitting in that attractive young mother's lap is me! And of course, the mother is my mom! One of my mom's friends was some kind of Sunset Magazine editor and got us this sweet gig! My one and only taste of extra stardom!

Another kind of stardom... Japanese puricura , or these notorious photobooth pictures that we have all come to know and love! These were taken on that night of the drunken bonenkai with my school teachers.

Ok, so I am obviously really drunk in these pictures and I was trying to really capture that essence of when you are in 7th grade and take "sexy" photo booth shots with your friends.  The other folks didn't catch on to this idea, so the result is that I just look like a merciless ham! That's fine by me... That teacher at the bottom is one of my favorites.

Oh no!! Ha, this blog has become a dumping ground for awful and embarrassing photos of me.  To match this mug I wrote "East Side gurlzzz" (our school's name is East School) and "yeah gurl" all over everything but I'm not sure that my teachers thought it was particularly funny.