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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.

There’s something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now, so I guess it’s time I attempted to put it into words.  I’m not sure how eloquently or clearly I’ll present it, but I will do my best.

For several years, I went through a very difficult and personal struggle with being single.  I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t expect to be married some day.  Having a lifelong partner, with or without children, was my goal, and I never even entertained the thought that it wouldn’t happen.  When I was in my 20s, I didn’t worry too much because I figured I still had plenty of time.  But when I got to my early 30s, a nagging desperation began to set in.  I pushed it away most of the time, because I knew I was still young.  But it was there.  It began to rear its ugly head every time I received another wedding invitation or birth announcement from one of my friends.  It got even worse once I started getting invitations to the weddings of the students I used to teach in Sunday school.  I kept telling myself I just need to be patient and God would reward me.  After all, He loved me and wanted what was best for me, so naturally He would present me with my significant other soon.  Then the self-deprecation started.  To be more exact, I began mentally ripping myself to shreds. I wasted so much time criticizing myself, my looks, my character.  Obviously I was deficient in some way.  As more years went by and Prince Charming continued to elude me, I became more and more critical.

During these times, I honestly did turn to God.  In every difficult situation, when I turn to God and seek comfort in the Bible, I am never disappointed. So talking to God about my struggles with singleness always helped. For a while.  But then I’d walk out the door and be slapped in the face again with how perfect everyone else was and what a loser I was.  I rarely spoke about it with anyone, but many times I would get comments like, “Jen, I can’t believe you’re not married yet, or “We need to find you  husband.”   That made it even worse because that meant that everyone was aware of my deficiency. I suspected that my friends, especially the married ones, pitied me.  I just knew they had secret conversations amongst themselves: “Why isn’t Jen married yet?” “I know!  She’s so nice. What do you think the problem is?”  I just couldn’t cling tight enough to God to be able to deal well with society’s perceptions and expectations.  Which of course were my own perceptions and expectations as well.

The thing is, all these comments and bits of advice were well-meaning.  I know that my friends like me and enjoy my company.  That’s why they’re my friends.  I know that when they say things like that, they want to encourage me and make me feel better.  But the problem with all of this is, they’re all looking at it wrong.  I’ve been looking at it wrong. I believe that the prevailing attitude in our society, including the Christian community, is that marriage is the final goal.  It’s what all of us, especially the women, should strive for.  Ultimate success is marriage and family.  Of course, no one would say this exactly.  It sounds so old-fashioned. But it’s such a part of our culture (and I’m guessing many other cultures) that we don’t even notice that we think this way anymore.

The way I see it, marriage and singleness are gifts.  I’m not just talking about spiritual gifts, but gifts that God gives each of us to equip us for the work He calls us to do.  They are gifts the same way that patience and athletic ability and intelligence are gifts.  One person can draw and another is good at cooking and yet another is good at science.  The difference in these gifts doesn’t make one person better than the other.  Each person just has different ways of being able to serve God.  My married friends are able to serve Him in their marriages.  I am able to serve Him in my singleness.  Neither one trumps the other.  They are simply different states of being. Marriage should never be the end goal or the defining factor of our lives. Serving God as best we can should be.

I am single right now.  I have no idea if that will stay the same for the rest of my life.  Things change.  A spouse can die, and people can get married at any age.  But I can honestly say now that I have stopped worrying about it.  It is a waste of my time.  It’s like obsessing over being bad at math or not being able to sing.  Sure, you can force a change.  But it’s so much work to do it!  All the time and resources to change something that really doesn’t matter is pointless.  I want to focus on what God has given me, not what I wish He would give me.  I have peace in knowing that I am right where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing, and at least trying to live the way I should live, all for Him.

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.

American Girl in Italy

During the cold winter months, I am very motivated to bring my lunch from home on the days I work.  That, or I stop at the convenience store during my morning bike ride to the office.  When it’s cold out, I have very little desire to go back out into the cold just to eat.  But the last few days have been a bit warmer, and I have been reminded of how much I enjoy getting outside for a walk in the middle of the day.  Even though it’s just a short walk down street, it’s nice to leave the office, breathe some fresh air (when it’s not garbage day), and stretch my legs.  It’s not a pretty walk – it’s not the cleanest area (for Japan) and there are no trees or flowers along the way.  It’s not a peaceful walk – my office is located right next to the highway ramp and the train passes by rather close.  But it’s 5-7 minutes (round trip) during my workday which belong only to me.  The other day was a beautiful sunny day, the air filled with the tear-inducing smell of a chemical spill.  Today, the sound of the birds singing and the inexplicable squadron of helicopters passing repeatedly overhead rang out over the rooftops.  And of course every day I can count on the curious sight of bags upon bags upon bags of used clothing piled up outside the recycling center, just sitting there lined up along the sidewalk, as well as the earthquake-like tremors from the trucks that go barreling by on the highway.  Oh, how I love my daily walk!

I’ve been recently put in charge of humanitarian disaster relief at the NGO where I work.  We are largely a development NGO, with our main focus on ending world hunger.  But disasters (floods, droughts, war) are bound to happen and we must be ready to help.  The problem is, I have no idea WHY I’ve been put in charge of disaster relief.  I have no background or training in it.  The biggest disaster I ever had to take care of was when I accidentally left my laundry out on the balcony to dry and it poured.  Starting next week I have to begin training the rest of the staff in emergency procedures.  I’m concerned that my emergency plan will look a bit like this:

So in an effort to live up to the potential that someone assumes I have, I’ve been scouring the internet for help.  There are actually quite a few disaster planning guides available for free.  By respectable organizations, no less.  In all honesty, I am not too worried.   While it’s important for us to work together well in a time of emergency, we are not first-responders in international crises.  We work with many international partner organizations that consist of highly trained and experienced staff.  I’m looking forward to learning some new skills and passing them on to my colleagues.  And if my training sessions result in us sending necessary food and water even 3 days earlier (which really can make a big difference) than we’ve been able to do in the past, then I’ll consider them a success.

I have to admit, recently I have developed a pretty big crush on Tom Hiddleston.  Not on Loki, as so many fangirls have.  But on the actual actor himself.  He’s got a great smile, dresses well, lovely hair and eyes, an adorable laugh, and he just seems like an all-around good guy who truly enjoys doing what he does.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has a beautiful British accent.  I always had a weakness for that.  I am crushing big time.  Have you seen his video with Cookie Monster?  How can you not adore him?

Anyway, this got me thinking about Hollywood Crushes in general the other night. I decided I would put them into 3 main categories: Looks, Talent, and The Whole Package.  The Looks category is the simplest to understand.  It is based solely on physical attractiveness without any regard to talent or public personality.  These are the actors that I am rather ashamed of finding attractive, even though most people would agree with me.  Some actors I would put in this category are Antonio Banderas, Orlando Bloom, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  I find these actors very pretty, yet sadly untalented. Or perhaps only good as one type of character.  Hence the feeling of shame.  How can I be reduced to such shallowness?  In my little fantasy world where it’s actually possible that one of them would be interested in me, I imagine I would be extremely flattered to be asked out.  But after a date or two, I’d realize that there was no way I could believably support and encourage him in his “art” and I’d have to break it off.  You know, before he got too attached to me.

The second group, Talent, is a bit easier to admit to.  These are actors that maybe aren’t stunningly handsome, but whose talent is great enough for me to truly admire them.  For me, this admiration actually makes them seem extremely handsome.  For example, Gary Sinise, Emile Hirsch, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Ruffalo.  Maybe some of you think these men are really attractive aside from their talent. But attraction is subjective, and I would have to say that if I saw any of these men on the street and they weren’t famous, I wouldn’t really notice them. These are the guys that don’t make much of an impression at first, but if you give them a chance you see how beautiful they really are (talent-wise). “He is SO hot!” is replaced by, “He is SO talented!” The problem is, even in my fantasy world I’m sure none of these guys would give me a second glance (with the possible exception of Gary Sinise, who seems like a genuinely nice guy, probably because he’s also from Chicago).

The third group is easily my favorite.  The Whole Package.  This is where Tom Hiddleston lives.  You might also run into David Tennant, Colin Firth, and Hugh Jackman.  These guys are handsome, talented, and all seem to truly love the business of being famous actors without being arrogant.  They’re doing what they love and they know how lucky they are to be doing it.  They know that being in the limelight has certain disadvantages, but they don’t let it interfere with their joy.  They don’t punch photographers; they pose.  They don’t shove past eager fans; they stop and sign autographs.  With a genuine smile.  They don’t just have a pretty face or a great personality.  They are the whole package.  They are the ones I’d most love to meet.  And based solely on their public images, I think they wouldn’t mind meeting me.  In fact, I’m about to meet Tom for drinks right now.  I just know he’ll find me irresistibly charming.  In my fantasy world, of course.

Today is February 3rd, and Japan is full of beans. Or at least the front yards are. Today is the annual Bean Throwing Festival, aka Setsubun (節分、せつぶん). Setsubun falls on 2/3 every year and serves to purify the home before spring officially begins on 2/4. The “festival” is pretty simple: you throw soybeans out the front door. It’s thought that throwing the soybeans out of the house drives away the evil spirits who bring bad luck and bad health. Many stores have display shelves full of decorative packages of soybeans, many of them adorned with a picture of an evil spirit, or oni. It’s also customary to shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Evil out, happiness in) as you are throwing the beans.

Soybeans and an ogre (oni) mask.

Children gleefully throwing beans at an evil ogre (oni).

 

 

 

 

 
In addition to tossing the beans, you are supposed to eat roasted soy beans to ensure that you have happiness and good luck all year. You eat one roasted soybean for each year of your life. In the Kansai area, which includes Osaka, it has recently become a custom to eat uncut makizushi, or ehoumaki (blessing direction roll). (Note: I have read some articles that claim that this tradition dates back to Edo period Japan, but many of my students have told me that it actually was a marketing ploy by nori (seaweed) companies. Perhaps these “historical tradition” stories are not based on fact, but on yen!) But be careful! It doesn’t work unless you eat it all, in silence, while facing the lucky compass direction, which changes every year according to the Chinese calendar. It’s a very tricky process, acquiring happiness.

Ehomaki (恵方巻)

OK, kids, gather round the campfire because I’m about to tell you a horror story.  Forget what your parents always told you about there being no monsters under the bed or in the closet.  Because there ARE monsters, alright.  But they’re not under the bed or in the closet.  I know because…I SAW ONE ON MY STAIRS!!!

Seriously, though, this happened sometime in May or June, I think.  It was a beautiful warm day, not hot and humid yet.  The kind of day that makes you feel alive, and happy to be so.  The kind of day that you feel like nothing dangerous or evil exists; and if it does, then it’s certainly not going to bother YOU today.  But I would come to find out that that was so very wrong.  I left the apartment in the late afternoon on this fine Saturday, not a care in the world.  I had no sense of foreboding as I bounded down the steps of my apartment building.  But at the 4th step, movement by my foot caught my eye.  It’s amazing how quickly the mind works.  In just a split second, my brain went through the possibilities of what the movement may be: a mouse?  a cockroach?  a leaf? a dust bunny? an incredibly tiny and mute dog?   Then my brain registered that this wasn’t just any movement; this thing had snapped at me.  I skipped down the remaining few steps, turned, and was horrified to discover that the source of the snapping was…a giant Japanese clawed googly-eyed crayfish monster thing!  It was staring at me warily with one of  its eyes attached to the end of a stalk.  The other eye stalk was stretched out in a different direction, but I could tell me was giving me the stink-eye with that one, as well.  Anyone could see he was angry, just daring me to try and get back to the safety of my apartment.  He viciously snapped in my general direction with one of his jagged claws as if to say, “That’s right!  These are MY stairs, girlie!”  I was frozen with fear, rooted to my spot.  For a moment, I thought I’d actually gone insane and was having a schizophrenic hallucination, or something to that effect.  My mind reeled at the sight of the impossible creature.  And then I realized, I was in Japan, after all.  I mean, this is the home of Godzilla and Mothra, giant turtles and killer robots.  What’s a giant clawed googly-eyed crayfish monster thing compared to those?

Anyway, I quickly recovered my senses enough to escape, praying desperately that it wouldn’t follow me.  I dreaded coming home all evening, but it was all for naught.  It seemed the monster had better things to eat than me, and by 10:30 that night it had disappeared.  The truth is that as time passes, I wonder if I ever really saw it.  Was it just a figment of my imagination?  Had I eaten some bad sushi?  I only know that I never want to see it again.   I was so freaked out that I didn’t even have the presence of mind to take a picture of it with my camera phone, although it probably would have just wrenched the phone out of my hands and smashed it against the wall.  Anyway, I’ll post a picture of a creature that bears some resemblance, although please note that it lacks the same fury in its eyes:

This must be a much smaller and kinder cousin to the creature that I saw. Notice how he ISN'T snapping his claws menacingly.

I hope you all can sleep tonight…

So, I’ve been making cakes for our cafe (Cafe Joyful) recently.  I have never had a problem until the last 2 weeks.  After a month-long absence, due mainly to an incredibly hectic schedule with end of the semester stuff, PM, and visiting friends, I finally baked a delicious apple cake one fine Tuesday AM.  I took the cake out, noticed it’s beautiful golden-brown color and mouth-watering aroma, and walked it over to Cafe Joyful.  Only to discover that the cafe was closed for a 3-day holiday.  Then this week, I again made the apple cake, using the same ingredients, same oven, same temperature, same pan for crying out loud.    And.  It.  Burned.  Seriously burned.  As in smoke-pouring-out-of-the-oven-burned.  After only 15 of the required 40 minutes of baking time, someone came downstairs to fetch me.  I was told there were even some flames.  It was tragic, annoying, bewildering, embarrassing.  Next week I will try one more time to bake a cake for the cafe (NOT an apple cake, no apples even in the kitchen near the cake).  If there is yet another incident that attempts to deter my efforts, I will conclude that my cake-baking days are over.  As they say, 3 strikes, you’re out.

We’re on week 4 now, and I decided to add some pictures of the little creatures that make their home in the rice paddies every year.  At night, you can hear tons of frogs, so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of tadpoles swimming around.