I Think I'm Turning Japanese
 
It's forecasted to rain all weekend! Not only do I dislike the rain, but it is also taking its toll on the beautifully delicate sakura. The petals are showering down fast and furiously, being swept into gutters and scattered across the wet pavement. Admittedly, the soft pink polka dots are still beautiful to look at, but it makes the trees look less fluffly and springlike and more naked and... tree-ish.

Luckily, my parents flew in on Wednesday and were able to see some of the cherry blossom glory. I will no doubt be posting some pictures of our adventures together. This weekend we head to Hiroshima, which means warmer weather! Yay! I hope some sakura can still be found there so we can enjoy some late-season hanami.

I am glad it's no longer crazy cold in Kobe, and I don't have to bundle up with tights under trousers and down jackets and scarves and earmuffs, but this rain is bringing me down a little. :-( Can't wait for more sunshine! Yes, even if it means I will be sweaty and miserable come summertime.

Stay tuned to see what my parents and I were up to on their visit!
 
 
Hanami, or the act of viewing the beautiful blooming cherry trees (sakura), is upon us! When Dan and I were in Kyoto a few days ago, we saw a small group of blossoming trees at one of the smaller shrines, which made me very excited that the rest would soon be exploding!

Yesterday, when I arrived at work, I noticed that the trees outside the window had indeed exploded. I took the time to snap some iPhone pictures, which actually turned out pretty beautiful against the bright blue sky. 

I am so excited that my mom will be able to see all the sakura! It's pretty perfect timing!

There really isn't much else to say about them... they're just really pretty!
 
 
Kobe beef time!

If we thought rafute was melt-in-your-mouth amazing, we were able to find the one thing that just might outdo it: Kobe steak! Yes, folks, the rumors are true. Kobe beef is amazing. If you love meat as much as I do, you can understand why the hefty price tag is worth paying in order to enjoy something as glorious as a bite of kobe beef in your mouth. It was in sharp contrast to the sinewy (but still delicious) gyoudon I had in Kyoto earlier that day. But any foodie would be able to fulheartedly appreciate the amazing goodness of Kobe beef. It is tender, it is juicy, it is flavorful, it is beautifully marbled, and it makes love to your much-neglected tastebuds (which are angry about all the crap you had made it taste before the introduction of succulent beef).

Dan and I knew we wanted his last dinner in Japan to be kobe beef, and even though we had a small taste of it before, being able to enjoy a whole steak would be something different. We decided to go to A-1 Charcoal Steak, which was both the least expensive and (so I've heard) one of the most delicious in the area. I'm not sure what I was expecting from the steak house. I guess for the pricetag, I was picturing linen table clothes, candles on the table, a fancy maitre'd, and waiters in tuxedos who serenade you with Puccini arias as you done. But it was just your unassuming restaurant inside, complete with flourescent lighting spilling out from the kitchen. But at least the chefs were wearing cool hats. :-)

We decided to order the course that included a glass of wine, soup, salad, and rice. The waiter laid out these silly paper aprons for us to wear, which I thought was just for show, but was later very happy to have in order to save my clothes from the splattering fat of the beef. (Never before had splattering fat sounded so appetizing!)

The steaks arrived sizzling on iron platters, topped with onions and generous slices of garlic and paired with spinach and some fried potatoes. Dan ordered 240 grams and I got 170, and since I have no idea how big grams were, I was anticipating it to be really small. But it was pretty big! I even ended up giving an extra slice to Dan (blasphemy!), who had gobbled it down like there was no tomorrow. I was a little skeptical when they had only given us chopsticks for the beef, but it is so tender and amazing that you can pick up the slices and bite off the size you want. Or, you can do as Dan did and put an entire slice in your mouth. :-)

I savored every single bite. I am the type of person that likes to make little meals of each bite: a little bit of spinach on top of the beef, topped with a small slice of garlic and a little morsel of potato. I like the way that I can make every bite different depending on what I decide to mix around. I was careful to leave some garlic and potato for my very last bite, and then set it aside as I finished my salad and rice. It was like my reward for eating all the extra stuff first. 

After the last amazing bite was gone, a small part of me was sad. But, I realized that in a little more than a week, my parents will be visiting and I can take them to this place again! More steak, please!

If I were an inmate on death row, I would definitely ask for some Kobe beef, with a side of rafute, of course.
 
 
When Dan and I got to Okinawa, it was probably about 5:00. It wasn't quite dinnertime, but it had been a while since we had eaten, and, just like a small child or a Mogwai, if I don't adhere to a regular feeding schedule, I get quite grumpy. We were taking the 120 bus (which, unfortunately, became our only mode of transport for much of our stay in Okinawa) up to Chatan from Naha, about an hour on the 58 "freeway" (more like a 2-lane road packed with people driving at freeway speeds). We passed through a busy area of Naha, illuminated with the tacky glow of flashing neon and running marquee lights. It was definitely the tourist shopping section, where you can pick up a cheap souviner or cheesey T-shirt to remind you of your time in this fabulous place. We weren't entirely confident in where we were going, and I was starting to get really grouchy (Dan just getting over his own grouchiness after being told to shut his Kindle off on the plane). We found a Korean BBQ place and, despite the pricetag, agreed to eat there. It was pretty yummy, but the highlight of the meal wasn't what we paid for; it was the succulent amuse bouche that they offered us while we waited. 

Placed in a tiny dish that could easily fit in a child's palm, two tiny slices of pork sat in some broth. Hungry and not caring if it tasted like wet toilet paper, I plunged my chopsticks in for a bite.

The best way to describe the texture of the meat is this: pillowy. Yes, this meat was pillowy, as well as moist, and extremely fatty. But, as I've stated in previous blog posts, I am not opposed to a little fatty porky goodness! This was my first taste of Okinawan Rafute, and it certainly would not be the last.

The following days, we had some rafute on a couple occasions. It was always soft and fatty and delicious, and always swimming in a bit of tangy-sweet-tamarind-y sauce, and always regretfully too small a portion. Probably my favorite taste of rafute was at a small restaurant by our hotel called Celluloid, a place whose decore I obsessed over and somewhat envied, from the velvet covered menues to the amber colored illumnated orbs on the wall. But the rafute was even better than all the restaurant's design elements combined! Dan and I literally made accidental "omnomnom" noises as we ate up every last fatty morsel of rafute presented to us.

It should be noted that Okinawan food is much different than other Japanese food. It is usually spicier or more full of flavor, with a heavier emphasis on fatty meats. Much like a certain other island communities I know (looking at you, fat-loving Philippines!).

I vowed that when I get back to the States, I will check out the butcher on College Ave. by our place, buy a pound of pork belly, and attempt to make some rafute.

But until that day comes, I invite you to follow this recipe I found, make some yourself, and report back to me!

Ingredients:
- 2 pounds pork belly
- 1g fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thick slices
- 2 cups dashi
- 2/4 cups sake
- 1/4 cup mirin
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
-1/2 cup soy sauce

Directions:

  1. Cut the pork belly into thick chunks. Blanch the pork with boiling water in a large pot to remove any excess oil. Drain and set aside.
  2. Mix ginger, dashi, sake, mirin, brown sugar, and soy sauce in a heavy based sauceban, stir over high heat until sugar is dissolved
  3. Add the pork and return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, turning occasionally for one our or until pork cubes are tender. When the sauce reduced to slightly syrupy glaze, remove from heat
  4. Serve hot and prepare to drool


Next up: Kobe beef!
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Maybe not the best picture... but soooo delicious!
 
 
Yesterday I saw Dan off at the airport. We were in a bit of a hurry to catch the 2:40 limousine bus to the airport. We still wanted to grab some noodles and hit an ATM before we got on the bus, which gave us exactly 22 minutes. I hate cutting it too close at the airport, so if we waited till the 3:00 bus, it would have been way too close for comfort. But Dan wanted noodles, and my stomach was starting to rumble too. What could we do? Grab a dehydrated Cup Noodle at the combini while Dan grabbed some money? Sit through an hour ride on the bus while I only got hungrier (and therefore crankier) and wait to eat at the airport?

Then suddenly it was as though the clouds parted and the gods smiled down on us. As we emerged from the short tunnel connecting us from the bus stop to the road where 7-11 (and the ATM) was, I saw the katakana for "Ramen." Being an odd hour of the day, I wondered if the ramen shop was open, but then I saw steam emerging from the part between the red curtains, and I saw the legs of a couple customers peeking out from beneath the banner. It was a standing ramen shop! One of the few eating experiences I had yet to enjoy. Here is where a hungry person on the go could grab a delicious bowl of noodley goodness without even bothering to remove their coat or sit down. You didn't have to waste precious moments flagging down a waiter, or ponder an indescipherable menu. Instead, you can slurp your noodles and literally walk away within minutes.

We walked up to the counter and were immediately handed two glasses of cold tea, and I hesitantly said "Buta no ramen?" Which roughly translates to "pig's ramen?" The lovely woman said "Chashumen?" And, because I didn't know what the proper word was, I just said "Hai! Futatsu de!" And less than 2 minutes later we were presented with two steaming bowls of lovely ramen with a generous portion of sliced pork on top with onions for garnish. I took a little sip of the broth threatening to spill over the lip of the bowl. Mmmm! Oishii deshita yo! Dan and I basically slurped and chewed in silence. Before half the bowl was gone, I was already getting full. I had to give some extra pork to Dan because I could hardly finish my serving. This was not your freshman year ramen staple! This was the real thing!

We managed to order and eat within 10 minutes, affording us enough time to stop by 7-11 for money and water, buy bus tickets, and board the bus with a couple minutes to spare. Now I know where I need to go when I need a quick bite. For cheaper than a crappy McDonald's set-o (and much faster to boot), I suggest hunting down a standing ramen shop for a delicious bowl of noodle heaven!
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Omnomnom!
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Dan slurping and probably making a mess...
Next up: Rafute!
 
 
I just got back from seeing Dan off at the airport. :-( 

He had a lovely second visit to Japan. Some of our highlights:
  • petting/feeding the deer in Nara
  • eating
  • scuba diving with whale sharks
  • sailing
  • eating
  • being the only 2 people laying on the beach in Zamami
  • kayaking to a private island
  • eating
  • visiting Kyoto
  • getting lost on the bus
  • riding in a rickshaw
  • eating

We also ate. A lot.

Anyway, I will likely blog about some of the adventures, namely the whale shark diving (I think that was my most favorite part of the entire time with Dan), but also about the eating. Because we did that. Lots. And it was delicious!

Now I am sitting in my lonely tiny apartment with nothing but the sound of the washing machine whirring to keep me company. Next week my parents will be visiting, though, so it will be a lovely distraction from all this quiet! 
 
 
I just returned to my base school, Nagamine, after watching the 6th graders graduate from elementary school. It was, of course, conducted entirely in Japanese, which means I understood about 1/4 of what was being said. The main gist was pretty plain, though: 6th graders enter, receive their diplomas one at a time, Kocho sensei gives a speech, PTA gives a speech, songs are sung, and the students leave.

If you ever go to one of these graduations, you're not going for the rehearsed speeches or the long sessions of clapping or the possibility of seeing someone (most likely an adult) burst into tears for no particular reason. You're going in order to see what kind of crazy getup these students come up with.

1) short skirts
First and foremost, you cannot help but notice the absurdly short skirts some of the girls choose to wear. A couple girls' skirts barely peeked out from under their sweaters. I think I might have spotted butt cheek. Keep in mind, these are 11 or 12 year old girls, so I don't think they were trying to go for the "sexy school girl" look. I can't help thinking what the hell the parents are thinking when they okay this fashion choice. "You look so cute! You should pair that 2-inch skirt with some thigh high stockings! A pedophile's dream!" Not to mention, it is about 3 degrees inside the auditorium. I am surprised no one died of hypothermia.

2) culottes
I didn't realize people still wore these outside of a Great Gatsby croquet themed party. Really, this is a popular enough "dressy" look for boys that clothing stores are selling them non-ironically? But at least the boys wearing culottes were owning it, striding down the aisle with heads held high. I can't help but wonder if the culotte-clad boys were participating in some kind of fashion show chicken. The first person to balk and change into normal pants loses!

3) neck scarfs
I actually quite like this look. Sure, the plaid usually clashes with some other pattern in the outfit, but it makes the girls look like a flight attendent, so you can't help feeling like they must be really nice and gracious people. They might even offer you a ginger ale if you're lucky.

4) sweater vests
There is nothing bad I can say about the sweater vest. I think it is a look that anyone can pull off, no matter what style you're trying for. But, I must wonder why all the kids wearing sweater vests only chose varying shades of blue. Is there a rule in Japan that you can't have a non-blue sweater vest at graduation?

5) blazers (with or without contrast piping and a crest)
Every girl who wore a blazer either had a family crest or contrast piping. Or, if she was really going for it, she had both. Extra points if her buttons are gold.

I don't know if it was because the auditorium was mind-numbingly cold, or I had way too much sleep last night, or I was just that into the fashion choices of these rambunctious 6th graders, but I didn't find one moment of the ceremony boring! That's saying a lot, since I have the attention span of... hey look, it's lunchtime!


 
 
Yesterday I took the train into rainy Osaka and checked out the Osaka Aquarium. It was incredibly crowded due to the rain, plus it was Sunday, plus... well, it's Japan. Crowds everywhere.

It was a pretty cool aquarium. It's laid out so there is really only one direction of traffic, which makes sense because, otherwise, it would be like Costco with everyone pushing against each other and me tearing my hair out trying to go around people. One of the more impressive tanks housed the giant whale shark and a huge manta ray, which shared the same big tank, but were separated by a fishing net. Not sure if it was because they are enemies or  had some kind of difference of opinion or what.

While most people spent their time ooohing and ahhing over that tank, which covered three floors of the aquarium, I spent about 20 minutes just staring at a much smaller tank that housed 2 sea turtles. They looked so happy! Can turtles look happy? Something about their little beaks looked like they were smiling. And so it struck me: sea turtles live a pretty sweet life.

For one, turtles live forever. Okay, that's not true, but relative to a human life, they live an awfully long time. They must have pretty low blood pressure, too, because they're never in much of a rush to get anywhere. That must be what contributes to their longevity.

Secondly, turtles don't have to worry about anything. Unlike most sea creatures, they don't really have any predators. If they are able to make it to sea as little hatchlings, then they are pretty set! The greatest predator to the sea turtle is man, but man preys on everything because we are terrible like that. So, they don't have to worry about being killed, and they don't have to worry about some tragic natural disaster taking away their homes, either.
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Case in point: on the left you see that the sea turtle always has his home with him. He doesn't have to worry about someone breaking in, he doesn't have to worry about paying the mortgage on time, he doesn't have to worry about an addition to the home when the babies come, because they're all born with their own homes, too. So, in that sense, he never has to worry about his kids living at home forever, or, even worse, the dreaded "boomerang" effect where the kids go out into the world, only to return home after an unsuccessful stab at college and gainful employment.

Plus, his house is pretty badass.

A sea turtle also doesn't have to deal with other annoying animals. There probably isn't anyone being obnoxious in the public ocean that makes him roll his eyes, or family members that show up drunk to his cousin's wedding and tell embarrassing stories. They never have to make idle conversation at a party and nod politely at a boring story. They never have to bother thinking of an excuse of why you don't want to look at the slides from their trip to Missouri. If he ever runs into someone he knew from way back whom he doesn't want to pretend he didn't see, he probably just slowly turns and swims away, but not in a way that says "I'm being rude," but more in a, "Gee, I'm really busy, let's catch up some other time" kind of way. Cuz he's really casual and chill like that.
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Sea turtles also seem to have some really cool little friends. Aside from other fellow sea turtles they get to hang out with little guys like this puffer fish on the right. He's super cute! I know they are probably just in this tank because that is how the employees at Osaka Aquarium arranged it, but  I bet they pal around all the time in the open ocean! It would be pretty cool to have a neighbor like that to borrow a cup of seaweed from.

Another bonus of being a sea turtle is that everyone loves them. Seriously, I have never met someone who said, "I hate sea turtles." You know why? Because they're not bullies (ahem... greatwhiteshark...ahem), they're not gross looking (yeah, sunfish, I'm looking at YOU), and when they are babies they are very cute. Which you really can't say about other baby sea animals. I think the stock for sea turtles also shot up when Crush the sea turtle was portrayed as a laid-back hippie/surfer dude in Finding Nemo.

Turtles also get to swim all day long. Which is one of my favorite things to do. I really can't elaborate much on that statement, other than to say swimming is really awesome, and having the ocean at your swimming disposal is a pretty neat deal.
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And my final point for why sea turtles live a lucky life: they have abs of steel. Or shell. But you know what I mean. They have chisled rock-hard abs, without ever having to do a crunch a day in their life. Have you ever seen an obese turtle? (I just tried Googling it, and the answer is no... and I recommend not Googling that yourself, because you will see some disturbing non-turtle-related pictures...) Anyway, they are all in shape and healthy without even trying. If everyone could be that way, I'd have saved hundreds of thousands of Yen on my YMCA membership!

Basically, I have come to the realization that this awesome animal is one of the more underrated in the ocean. Sure, dolphins can do all sorts of tricks and otters are super cute when they clean themselves after eating, but stop and consider my points on the charmed life of a sea turtle, and you are sure to agree with me!

I have a feeling my next trip might be going to the Galapagos Islands and rescuing some turtles. Maybe I'll sneak one in my bag on the way home? Sounds like a plan.
 
 
I had some fitful sleep last night. First there was the earthquake, then the tsunami, and now the media going nuts over the "nuclear meltdown." I know the media in general has a flair for the dramatic, so I did some research, more for my own peace of mind than anything else, about how serious the nuclear disaster up north is. 
For now, it seems like things are under control, and Japan's nuclear power plants were built with the worst-case scenarios in mind. It seems there is no chance a Chernobyl-like disaster will occur. It also seems like the worst is over.

However, that last paragraph is one frought with "seems." No one can give definite answers of how safe the country is or how soon everything will be fixed. On the one hand, the government and the power plant workers don't want to be to too reassuring, giving everyone a false sense of security. So they are saying little to nothing at all. On the other hand, the media, particularly foreign media, wants the world to know that OH MY GOD THERE IS A CRISIS AND THE END IS NEAR!, probably with the intention to both keep everyone on alert but more importantly to sell more papers. The mass-hysteria that this is creating undoubtedly has everyone on edge, myself included. Considering I will have a string of visitors coming starting this Saturday, I want to assure them that if they come to Kobe, we are safe, but I also don't want anyone feeling like they're risking their life for a simple vacation.

Last night I was having weird dreams that I was about to die in really weird ways: falling off the Bay Bridge in San Francisco while riding my bike; trying to swim across the bay and almost drowning; running towards the beach and then tripping and hitting my head. All of these things had me waking up and feeling unsettled. What's more, I slept with Skype on, so when Dan woke up he started talking to me about a potential nuclear disaster, which, in my groggy/sleepy/confused/half-dreaming state, made me all the more paranoid. I even had a weird dream about a girl I went to school with over 20 years ago that I never even talked to trying to save my life, which made me wake up yet again to stalk Facebook to see if she was still alive and well (she was). All these strange things added to the nagging feeling in the back of my head since Friday that maybe I would be safer and less stressed out if I just left Japan altogether.

But I'm not a quitter! At least not in this instance. Sure, I've quit many things in my life: piano lessons (my teacher was horrific and I hated being told when and what to play), terrible jobs (no, it is NOT okay for children to throw desks at you and administrators turning a blind eye to it), sad relationships... But I don't think I've ever quit anything because I was scared. (Please remind me of otherwise if I am mistaken.) So until the US Embassy sends me a message telling me to go home, I think I am fine here in Kobe. Dan asked me a very important question: "Is your experience in Japan worth your life?" Honestly? No, it's not. But even though it's a but scary to be here at this moment in time, I don't think my life is seriously in danger. Trust me, if I did, there is nowhere else I'd rather be than home, safe.

Japan is a resilient country. As a current resident, I am determined to reflect that resilence. So I'm staying put.
 
 
I was sitting at my desk at Tsurukabuto, fresh from playing outside with the elementary school children, relishing the warm sun on my back and the fact that I just pulled off three amazing classes in a row with my second graders. I was once again feeling like an elementary school rock star, earning high fives and hugs and points and giggles from the little kids that I hadn't taught before. It was my only class of the semester with them, and I was on cloud nine.

Then Kyouto-sensei turned on the news. I thought maybe he was checking in on a sports core or about to review the footage from that morning's sixth grade graduation ceremony. But instead I saw the news of crumbled buildings in Tokyo and rabid Japanese being spoken and flashing maps of Japan with the north east coast highlighted in red.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Earthquake," was Kyouto-sensei's simple reply.

It looked like a huge earthquake, but based on the blinking dot off the coast of Japan, I was relieved that it had occured in the middle of the ocean. Perhaps that meant not too much damage had been done. But then it struck me what happens when large earthquakes strike in the middle of shallow ocean waters. Images of the aftermath of the Thai tsunami a few years ago flashed in my head, and I asked, hesitantly, "Tsunami?"

Just as soon as the word escaped my mouth, I heard the news anchor echo, "Tsunami." It was just me, Kyouto-sensei, and the chief examiner in the staff room, and we huddled closer to the TV screen. I had no idea what was being said, and I couldn't read the complicated Kanji, but I knew from the look of fear on my co-workers' faces that it was not good. I tried to ask in broken Japanese, "How big is the tsunami? Where is it?" In return, Kyouto-sensei answered in broken English, "Miyagi. Big. Ju-yon meter." 

The chime struck for the end of fifth period, and a couple other teachers entered the staff room, laughing with each other. But, as soon as they saw the news on and the grave look on our faces, their laughter stopped and they joined us at the TV screen. 

At first all we saw was footage of some roads slowly getting flooded. Cars were still driving, although it looked like if they went any slower, soon they would start floating. However, within minutes, the water level had risen and all of a sudden the cars started getting swept out of the screen shot. The camera panned back, and we saw that the street had flooded so much, and the cars were getting carried over an overpass. We watched with horror as the cars, with people still in them, cascaded down over the guard rail and into the river below, tumbling and tumbling and then bobbing around under the river.

Then the camera switched to an aerial view of Sendai, and we watched as a dark wave carrying debris swiftly ate up the landscape. It was a helpless and utterly surreal moment, watching as cars and trucks that were desperately trying to outrun the incoming wave got swept up. Soon there was no more land to be seen, just cars, boats, and trucks swirling around. Some buildings had caught fire and were now floating, and as the camera panned back even more it looked like a scene out of a big budget disaster movie. But, this was real life, and these were real people, and there was no hero that was going to come in and save everyone.

I immediately emailed my mom and Dan to let them know that I was safe and far from any tsunami. 

I watched the coverage for over an hour before I realized that I was allowed to go home. I wasn't sure what to do, but I realized there really wasn't anything to do. I didn't personally know anyone in the Miyagi prefecture, but I know that many of my friends and coworkers have family and friends there.

In the hours after the tsunami hit, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern coming from all corners of the globe. Emails, Facebook messages, phone calls, and texts all came, and I met frantic voices with my own voice of reassurance and relief. It made me wonder what would have happened if we didn't have this technology, and I couldn't stop feeling a sense of gratitude that I was safe from a disaster that was so near.

Please continue to keep Japan in your thoughts and prayers. It is a terrible tragedy, but I am so proud of the way the people around me are handling things. There is such a sense of unity in this country, and I know it may take some time, but Japan will bounce back.