Archives for posts with tag: Japan

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.

Advertisements

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.

Tonight, I had a simple mission: buy toilet paper.  I stopped at the local drugstore on the way home, expecting to run in and out.  I wasn’t really in a hurry for any reason there than that I was hungry.  So I walked in the front entrance and made my way towards where I thought the tp would be.  Imagine my surprise to see that there was no toilet paper in the whole store.  Seriously.  I walked up and down every aisle twice, some of them 3 times.  Not a square to be found.  Then i started wondering, do they carry tp at drugstores here?  Where had I bought it last time? Certainly not at this drugstore. I realized I had only bought it once since moving in to my new place.  My host mother had bought a jumbo pack for me when I first moved in, and being a single person, it had taken a while to go through it.  I had bought a 4-pack when I had 2 overnight guests, and I had bought it in a hurry at the supermarket because I had to get back home and vacuum and finish putting the laundry away before they arrived and I just didn’t have time to screw around looking for the best deal.  So apparently, this drugstore was not going to help me out.  I left out the front entrance again, and as I came around the corner, I passed the little-used side entrance of the shop.  Which I guess also serves as the official toilet paper section.  An entire shelf unit full of toilet paper.  Because why wouldn’t you display it in the dimly lit alcove next to the store?  All those years working in retail, I never was very good at promotional displays.

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.

Fannie May

The Fannie May traditional assortment is certainly nothing to turn your nose up at.

Valentine’s Day is a big business holiday in Japan.  And just as in the U.S., chocolate  is a bestseller.  While you will never hear me complain about receiving some good old Fannie May, I have to admit that the creativity and artistry that goes into Japanese Valentine’s Day goes far above and beyond what we Americans are most familiar with.

 

 

Even though the chocolates sold in the stores are beautiful, many young women like a more personal touch.  It’s very common to make your own chocolates to hand out to friends, boyfriends, and co-workers.  But just because you went that extra mile for your crush, ladies, don’t expect anything back just yet.  In Japan, February 14th is the day women give chocolate to men.  Men aren’t expected to reciprocate until White Day on March 14th.   Why is it called White Day?  Well, the gifts are usually white.  I asked a Japanese friend once what kind of white gifts are given and she told me that marshmallows are common.  Which I think is just terrible.  You slave over a hot stove melting chocolate and lovingly pouring it into molds all night, and a month later he hands you a bag of marshmallows?  You’d better hope that’s not an indication of how the rest of the relationship is going to go.

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.