Archives for category: Cultural Observations

Have you all seen this new Pantene commercial that tells women to stop apologizing? I just came across it the other day and I’m really confused by it. I get that the point is to help women feel empowered. And some of the examples are really valid. For example, the scene where the guy sits down and takes over the whole armrest. The woman who was already sitting there is the one who moves her arm and says, “Sorry”. The guy doesn’t even glance at her. Clearly, he’s a rude jerk who should have apologized to her. And yes, the scene with the multiple women apologizing to the guy who comes in late and wants to sit down was ridiculous. But what about some of the others? Was it really wrong that the woman said, “Sorry,“ when she walked into the person’s office? We have no idea what the person was doing in the office before she walked in, but the door was clearly closed. It would not be unheard of to think that a closed door means the person is busy. I don’t know what they’re teaching the kids these days, but I was taught to use words like “sorry” and “excuse me” when you interrupt someone. Was it such a terrible thing for the woman to apologize when she and the man started talking at the same time? Yes, I know, the man didn’t bother to apologize, but that doesn’t mean she has to be rude as well. It was polite of her to say, “Sorry, you go first.”  Is the commercial saying that women don’t have to be polite because men aren’t? Is it saying that everyone should just be rude and selfish no matter what your gender? Being empowered does not mean being rude. A little common courtesy never killed anyone. Perhaps if we all exhibited a little more polite behavior no one would need to be empowered by shampoo commercials.

Here’s a better ad, in my opinion:

 

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I have lived most of my life in the Chicago area, and I suppose I have a love-hate relationships with the seasons. Especially winter. About 20 years ago, I moved to Los Angeles for a while. While I absolutely loved the year-round mild weather at first, I began to long for the seasons that I was used to in the Midwest. Now that I live in and experience the seasons of Osaka, I realize you need to be careful what you wish for. While the winter in Osaka is far milder than in Chicago, the rainy season here is the worst. So I have compiled a list of why 梅雨 (tsuyu – the rainy season) is the worst.

1) It’s hot. Now, I am no fan of the cold rains that we get in Chicago in April. But the rainy season in Osaka takes place in June and July. The hottest part of the summer actually occurs right after the rainy season (in July and August), so it’s pretty much building up to that. Plus, you have the added effect of point number 2, which is…

2) It’s sticky. Humid. Muggy. Sultry, stifling, mushiatsui. Whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty miserable. You know how in the Midwest we look forward to a good rain because it will cool things off? Not the case in Osaka. In fact, it gets worse. Now, instead of just having moisture in the air, it’s also steaming up from the ground. The second you walk outside, your clothes begin to stick to you. You learn to bring a fresh shirt with you everywhere. And your apartment? Fuggedaboutit. No longer able to open the windows because of all that rain, you are probably stuck with an air conditioner in only one room and/or a fan. Those of you who have experienced a power outage during a summer storm may have a clue what I’m talking about. But Japanese homes don’t have central air conditioning, so it never gets all that cool to begin with. Your home begins to feel a bit like you are living inside a bowl of warm gelatin. May God help you if you need to be in the tiny bathroom for more than 30 seconds.

3) It’s wet. This seems like a no-brainer. I mean, it’s raining, so duh. But what I’m talking about here is the complete inability of any person to stay dry. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, it’s not bad. But definitely don’t wear good shoes, because even driving can’t save them. Many places don’t have parking lots, so you can’t make a quick dash from the car to the door. You’ll probably have to walk a bit. Riding a bike? Yeah, that’ll be covered in #5 below.

4) It’s dirty. I always liked the clean, fresh smell after a storm. The rain always seemed to refresh things, make them greener and cleaner. Here the garbage just stands out more clearly. I don’t even like to think about it. And it’s not like Osaka is filthy on a fine day. The rain just somehow makes it worse. We don’t have puddles; we have tiny cesspools. I rarely wear sandals on rainy days here for fear of what I might step in.

5) Riding your bike becomes treacherous. And ridiculous. There are a couple ways to attempt to stay dry while on a bike. Neither of them are good options. #1, which few people do, is wear a full-length rain suit. A rain suit is pretty much a pullover plastic coat with hood and a pair of plastic pants. While this sounds like it will keep you dry, it actually has the opposite effect by causing you to sweat profusely. I mean, you’ve encased yourself in plastic, so what did you expect? The other option is to carry an umbrella. Believe it or not, this is actually illegal. Yet, almost everyone does it. I have yet to hear of someone who was ticketed for carry an umbrella while biking, though it’s probably a good rule. The problem with doing this is twofold (I guess threefold if you count the whole breaking the law thing). First, it only covers your head and torso. Your legs will still get soaked, so you’d better have an extra pair of pants with you. Secondly, it makes a slightly dangerous mode of travel extremely dangerous. I’m pretty good on my bike, but even I don’t feel like I have complete control when I’ve got only one hand on the handlebars. Biking is already dangerous because so many people do it and nobody ever looks where they’re going. Add to that umbrellas that could smack you in the head and loss of balance and you’ve got several accidents waiting to happen.

Really, if there’s any way you can hole up in your house or leave the country during tsuyu, do it. You won’t miss anything, trust me.

Veggie ice cream 2

Today’s bizarre snack outing comes to us courtesy of none other than Haagen-Dazs.  Haagen-Dazs is fairly expensive here in Japan.  In fact, a 120 ml. (4 oz.) cup will run you 257 yen ($2.50) at the local 7-11.  Usually, the cost is worth it.  Today, however, not so much.  Haagen-Dazs frequently creates new and interesting flavors for Japan.  Recently, to celebrate an anniversary, they sold limited edition Rose as well as Sakura (cherry blossom) flavors.  You can also find purple sweet potato, azuki (red bean), royal milk tea, and green tea, all fairly standard Japanese flavors.  But the latest set of flavors is the strangest I have heard so far: Carrot/orange and Tomato/cherry.  They go by the series name “スプーンベジ (Spoon Veggie) and are supposedly healthier.  Unfortunately, the Carrot/Orange one tastes about as good as it sounds.

Veggie ice cream

I admit, it’s difficult to describe the exact flavor.  The first taste is just…weird.  Not really carrot or orange, but a kind of earthy, milky flavor.  Then the orange sherbet taste hits you.  This is a delicious surprise for as long as it lasts, which is sadly about 2 seconds.  But for those 2 seconds, I was carried back to my childhood days of eating Push-ups on the front stoop.  Finally, that taste is replaced by a sort of bitter after taste, as if they used only the peels of the carrot and orange.

The co-workers I tried this with had much the same reaction, and I noticed we all made similar faces as our brains frantically tried to identify the flavors.  All in all, not a horrible experience.  But we did not finish the tiny cup, and there were 5 of us who tried it.  I usually try these things out at work (it makes it so much more fun), and there is always someone who likes the snack and will finish it.  Alas, not today.  But on a positive note, everyone now wants to try the Tomato/Cherry one.  So not a win, but not a total failure.  Not bad for an ice cream made of veggies.

Update: The staff members who missed out on trying this the first day were able to partake of the leftovers the next day.  They LOVED it.  Go figure.

Oh, the horror! The horror!

OK, I admit I sort of chose an easy snack for my first Snack Japan post. It was a strange combo, yes, but bacon always makes everything better. Overall, the bacon-wrapped asparagus potato sticks could have been tougher. So to make up for it, I chose a true challenge this time. It was a difficult decision, and I almost put it back, but ultimately, I realized I owe it to all of you who are counting on me to help you make good snack choices. So tonight I ate my first Spaghetti Popsicle. To be more exact, it was a Spaghetti Napolitan-flavored popsicle with bits of tomato jelly thrown in to get that real, tomato taste that everyone loves in their popsicles.

Imagine a big plate of spaghetti noodles sitting in front of you. It’s cooked to a perfect al dente, you’ve got fresh parmesan ready to sprinkle over it. And here comes a ladle full of the delicious sauce, about to be poured out over your perfect spaghetti noodles. But instead of being poured over your noodles, some idiot pours it into some plastic popsicle molds and sticks it in the freezer. 2 hours later, open the freezer and you’ve got this Japanese delight. Except there’s an added surprise, because when you stormed off to the nearest Taco Bell because your delicious spaghetti dinner had been ruined, that same idiot went and snuck a bunch of little chunks of tomato-flavored Jell-O into the popsicles, so that when you bite into them, you also get globs of tomato goo. Spaghetti sauce gone horribly, horribly wrong.

In conclusion, if you like the taste of frozen tomato sauce alternated with sugar and biting into bits of goo, then this is definitely the snack for you.  If not, then do yourself a favor and heat up a can of Spaghetti-Os instead.

The Namba area has no shortage of interesting places to visit in your free time. There are plenty of stores ranging from designer to discount. It’s an area well-known for its food, and just about any street will offer up plenty of choices. If it’s culture you’re after, there’s the National Bunraku Theater or the Ukiyo-e museum. All the best electronics deals can be found in Nipponbashi, also known for its manga shops and cosplay cafes. So with all these possibilities at our fingertips, my friend Jung A and I decided to visit…a cat café.

Welcome to the cat cafe! Prepare to be ignored.

Welcome to the cat cafe! Prepare to be ignored.

A cat café is pretty much what you guess – a café that has cats. Lots of cats. While stray cats are plentiful in the Osaka area (especially around my old apartment building that always smelled like cat pee and featured nightly “serenades” in the parking lot just below my window), not many people have them as pets. This is in large part due to the number of people who live in apartments where pets are (supposedly) not allowed (again, old apartment building where at least one person kept a pet rooster I’M NOT EVEN KIDDING).  Cat cafes have started becoming a popular alternative to actually having a cat of your own.

I found the café by looking on the website nekonojikan.com (“cat time”). The website gave lots of useful information such as the rules, the drink menu, and the names and pictures of all the cats you might see on a given day. The website also claimed (falsely) that all the cats are friendly and will probably even seek out your attention once they get used to you. Being a cat-lover, I was pretty excited about this. Being a former cat-owner, I was skeptical. But I figured if nothing else, it would give me a good blog post.

After washing our hands at the sink in the lobby as instructed, we entered the café. We paid our 1000 yen for one hour of cat time, prepaid 200 yen for a drink we could order at any time during that hour, and prepared to be greeted by hordes of affectionate cats. There was a family of four already there, as well as a guy probably in his 30s. The mom and dad were cheerfully watching their 2 daughters walk around petting the various cats. They were kind of noisy, so I wasn’t too surprised the cats hadn’t seemed to warm up to them. The guy, however, was surrounded by cats. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor and had 2 cats in his lap. He also had the good sense to sit right in the middle of 3 cat beds, each of which contained 1 or 2 cats. The cats were completely disinterested in me and Jung A. But I thought if we could just bide our time until the other people left, then we could have all the cats to ourselves.

IMG_2113

Unfortunately, we never had a chance. Most of the cats were sleeping, and the ones that were awake definitely did NOT seek out our attention as the website had claimed. In fact, we were lucky if they even let us pet them while they slept. Mostly we were swatted by their little paws and snarled at, but in a few cases the cats actually ran away. And since we were strictly forbidden from scaring or chasing the cats, all we could do was just stand there forlornly and watch them flee, much like our hope.  Perhaps if I rub some catnip on my socks before my next visit…

Japan has interesting tastes. I’m not just referring to the raw fish, the sweet beans, and the many green tea-flavored things. I’m talking about their habit of making snack flavor combinations that no one in their right mind would ever think of. Some examples from the last 6 years here are red bean Pepsi, Mountain Dew Cheetos, and sour plum potato chips. So I’ve decided to make a new feature in which I will sample a weird-flavored snack and give you an honest opinion. Today’s item is: Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus Jagariko (potato sticks, think potato chip meets French fry). IMG_2152

I like bacon, I like asparagus, I even like bacon-wrapped asparagus. So I figured going into this that this was definitely going to be one of my better outings. Not surprisingly, they were not bad at all. They definitely tasted like asparagus and potato, and they had a smoky flavor which I suppose was the bacon. It was pretty much the perfect way to make bacon-wrapped asparagus even unhealthier. However, it was a bit difficult to get over the mental hurdle that I was basically eating chips that tasted like an appetizer. It wasn’t that they tasted bad, or even strange. But who thought that there would be a reasonable market for this particular flavor? In all the time I have been here, I have never seen bacon and asparagus even on the same plate. I’d really love to know the thought process that resulted in creating these.

ImageOne of my all-time favorite movies is Until the End of the World.  It’s a 3 hour (the director’s cut is 5 hours) futuristic road movie about chasing love, happiness, and a controversial invention that turns your dreams into home movies.  All set in the year 1999.  In the opening scenes of the movie, the narrator, played by Sam Neill, gives us a brief description of the times: “1999 was the year that the Indian nuclear satellite went out of control. No one knew when it would land. It soared above the ozone layer like a lethal bird of prey.  The whole world was alarmed.” I’ve been wondering if we will think back on 2014 in a similar way, remembering it as the year Malaysian flight MH370 went missing.

Malaysia jetI mean, they lost a jet, a huge Boeing 777.  Filled with people.  And equipped with all kinds of state-of-the-art communication devices.  How can that happen?  They’re saying today (though it could easily change tomorrow) that someone had to have purposely turned off all the devices and whatnot that allow the plane to be tracked.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is not good.  I mean, that sounds like someone wants the plane to not be found.  Is it the pilot?  A passenger who hijacked the plane?  Charles Widmore?  No one knows.  But in the dead time following the Olympics, the Oscars, and a weekend binge of House of Cards, the mystery of it all is somewhat alluring.  Not to make light of it – I’m sure the families who are praying for their loved ones to be found are not at all fascinated. More likely they are dumbfounded, angry, and desperate for a resolution.  But for those of us who are not intimately connected, it’s compelling.  How and why did they do it?  Where are they now?  Are they alive, and if by some miracle they are, why haven’t we heard anything?  And the question no one wants to ask out loud, how long until we give up?

Pray for MH370So what world event will define 2014?  It’s still too early in the year to make that call.  So far we have a few contenders: the Sochi Olympics (memorable more for the sketchy accommodations than for the sports themselves), Crimea being separated from Ukraine and annexed to Russia, and now the missing plane.  Who knows what else will happen in the next 9 months?  I’m just relieved that there’s already enough to overshadow the shock that Matthew McConaughey (Matthew McConaughey, for Pete’s sake) won an Oscar.

I love the parking lot traffic directors at Mandai. Actually, you can see them a lot of places, but I go to Mandai pretty frequently so they are the ones I see the most. The parking lot traffic directors are great. They are almost always retired guys who work part-time at shops with lots of traffic. They wear uniforms and carry a “wand,” which looks a bit like a short light saber. And you can trust them completely. They are vigilant, constantly watching all around them for cars, bikes, and pedestrians in need of directing. Ready to hold up one hand to stop that car while waving you on with the light saber. Quite often when I come around the corner on my bike, the Mandai traffic looks a bit crazy. I consider getting off my bike and just walking it the rest of the way, hoping that the traffic clears out enough for me to pass through. But then the traffic director looks over at me and nods and waves me into the parking lot with total authority. All he says is, “Hai! Dozo, dozo,” but I know he means, “Go ahead, miss. As long as I’m on duty, you won’t get hit by any cars. My job is to serve and protect, and you can count on me to do just that.”
The other job I really appreciate is the bike lot attendants. Usually near the train stations there are bike parking lots where you can pay to leave your bike all day. There’s usually a guy in the little office where you pay, and then 2 or 3 guys, also retired gentlemen, who help you with your bike. In the morning, it’s not such a big deal. Everyone’s kinda coming in and parking his or her bike wherever. But when you return in the evening to get your bike, the parking lot is almost always packed tight. The bikes are all lined up in these neat rows, and they’re really close together. It would be impossible to get your bike out if it weren’t for the bike lot attendants. You just walk over to your bike, unlock it, and the attendant will maneuver your bike out and bring it over to you in the main aisle. When you leave your bike in the morning, they say, “See you later,” and when you return, they say, “Welcome back.” They’re like a bunch of kindly grandfathers. Probably they really are grandfathers, so I guess it makes sense.

Tonight as I was riding my bike home from work, I had to stop for the train as I usually do.  As I was waiting, an old woman walked up and stood to my right about 7 or 8 feet away.  I gave her a little glance, but didn’t pay much attention.  But then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her edge a little closer to me.  I glanced sideways at her, wondering what caused her to move closer, but didn’t see anything unusual.  Then she edged closer still.  At this point, I became paranoid that she was going to make a grab for the small bag of groceries I had just bought and was sitting in my basket.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized the groceries were just begging to be stolen.  What was I thinking, putting them out in the open like that?  I could tell she knew I had found a good deal on frozen French fries and she wanted in. So I coyly wrapped the plastic bag handle around my handlebars.  “Just try it now, lady, ” I thought smugly.  The train passed and the rail went up and I thought I was home free, but then I found out the real reason she had moved closer.  Her diabolical plan all along was to step right in front of me and then walk as slowly as possible.  I had nowhere to go.  To the left was nothing but rocks and train tracks.  On my right, other bikers were passing me at the speed of light, only too happy that they were not the ones stuck behind her.  Well played, old lady.  Maybe I should have just given her the groceries.

While we’re on the subject of annoying things that people to do to other people (i.e. me) on the street, I think there needs to be a law that prevents groups of 2 or more people from forcing someone off the sidewalk and into rush hour traffic just so that they can continue to walk next to each other.  Or maybe they just need to start teaching basic physics in Japanese schools, because obviously they do not understand that 2 people cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Unless of you is a ghost.  Which I am not.  And hopefully, neither are you.  If you are, then we’ve got even bigger problems.

USB typewriterI work in an organization staffed by about 15 people (plus several volunteers) in a 3-story building.  My office is on the 3rd floor, and I share it with 3 other people.  Were it not for these 3 co-workers, my day would be extremely lonely, since no one EVER visits the 3rd floor.  I even brought in flavored coffee from my favorite coffee shop in the U.S. to try to bribe people to come visit.  The attempt was a complete fail.  On the upside, the 4 of us got more coffee.  But today I am flying solo, and it has been a loooooong day.  To break the monotony, I wandered down to the first floor to make a lovely cup of afternoon milk tea.  One of the volunteers was sitting at the main table with a big stack of posters, so I asked her what she was working on.  She told me that she was putting these new stickers on the posters that informed people you could take a picture of the poster with your smart phone and then somehow donate directly through your phone. I just looked at her for a second in amazement.  I mean, she was obviously excited, so I knew she wasn’t making it up.  But it just sounded like crazy talk to me.  I know, I’ve seen those little boxes with the squiggly lines (which I just now Googled and discovered they are called QR codes).  I know you can scan those with an app or something (there’s an app for everything) and you can get special offers or extra information or something.  But this was just a poster.  I have no idea how it works.  It just amazes me.

Don’t get me wrong; I have embraced technology.  I  was an early iPhone 4 user (at least here in Osaka), and the only way you’ll get my iPhone 5 is if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.  I’m actually very good at using it, too.  I was thrilled to be able to scan a boarding pass recently by using my phone.  When I was in the Philippines, one of my tasks was to set up the satellite phones.  I even taught my parents how to use Skype, which is nothing to sneeze at.  So I’m not technologically challenged.  It’s just that I remember the days before all this.  When I was in university, I typed my papers on a word processor.  It had a little pop-up screen that displayed 4 lines at a time (I was jealous of my sister when she got a newer one a few years later that showed seven lines).  My lab reports were handwritten in duplicate using carbon paper.  My neighbor once told me how she and her boyfriend, a student at a different university, used to communicate using a rudimentary form of what is now known as instant messaging and I just didn’t get it.  The first time I heard about this new invention they were working on called the World Wide Web, I couldn’t figure out how it would work.  How would you get information about anywhere in the world? Was there someone sitting at a computer that would answer your questions? I pictured this poor person sitting at a single desk in a poorly lit room patiently waiting for a question to answer, maybe with a glass of water and a sandwich next to the monitor.

What will they think up next, eh?