Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

My maternal family has an uncommon food allergy - tomatoes. My mother could not eat raw tomatoes, but if they were cooked she was alright. My aunt has issues with vegetables in general, and I have been told their mother also had issues with tomatoes. In fact, family lore (highly unlikely that it is true, but is still amusing) says that my maternal grandmother's grandfather was the first man to import tomatoes to Scotland and, when the new culinary treat didn't take off as had been hoped, the family ended up having to eat a lot of them at home. Over time multiple members of the family developed intolerances. The plant is, after all related to the highly poisonous deadly nightshade, and the fruit of the tomato is the only edible part as the leaves are also toxic.

I was in my twenties before I realized I too had issues with tomatoes. More recently I've realized that my problems have increased, to cover peppers and eggplant. For the time being potatoes (also related) appear to be alright and I am ignoring the likelyhood that chili peppers (and therefore many spicy foods that I LOVE) are a problem. Unfortunately for me it is not enough to cook tomatoes, and even small amounts in sauces will give me an upset stomach. Eating in India was made more difficult by attempts to find dishes that didn't have tomatoes as the sauce base, and I've had to give up a number of my favourite dishes.

Pizza, thankfully, is not one I've had to give up completely, although for the most part I have to make it myself. When I have access to an oven it is one of my favourite meals to make. My old stand-by has a pesto-sauce base and is then loaded with spinach, red onion, feta cheese, mozzarella, and whatever else is in the fridge (shrimp, bacon, moose sausage, asparagus, artichoke...) When I was in Canada over Christmas I made pizza a couple of times, each time using store-bought pizza shells and whatever I found in the fridge. Two of the concoctions I came up with this time were:

Christmas Turkey Left-over:

I used a citrus cranberry sauce (I never liked cranberry until I tried this at Thanksgiving dinner at relatives of an ex, this sauce has been a staple in my family's holiday dinner ever since) as a base, and piled it with spinach, leftover roast onions and turkey, feta cheese and mozzarella. I wasn't sure how it would work, but it was actually really good and a fun new way of serving up turkey left-overs!

and Chinese Hoisin Chicken:

While I still prefer Peking duck without it, I have finally managed to outgrown my HATRED of hoisin sauce (I called it "poison sauce"). My dad loves the stuff, however, so he was insistent that we make a hoisin pizza. We used cubes of left-over chicken, and more of the Christmas roast-onions. It was very yummy but we both agreed that it needed vegetables - perhaps mushrooms and something green.

While I may be adventurous about what I put on the pizza I make, I must admit I still am not a fan of some Japanese pizza - with mayo, corn, potatoes, and tuna... shudder...!

Monday, 23 February 2009

Gift Horse

A few weeks ago I got a letter from the international office at my university. It wasn't an important notice, only a reminder that I needed to submit a form if I planned to leave the country over spring break. Since I know about the form (I submitted when I went home for Christmas) and am not planning to leave Japan during spring break, I threw the letter out (well, actually I threw out the envalope and will reuse the paper... but I'm splitting hairs).

What annoyed me about the situation was not the letter, it was the fact that the letter had taken about two weeks to get to me because the office had sent it to my old address, at the dorm. I changed my address with every conceivable office at the unviersity (and wrote about it too). But not one of the offices succeeded in actually sending mail to my new address. I had to go back in and remind them, or the mail had to be sent back to them before they actually got the message.

You'd think that in a country as technologically advanced as Japan that they'd have the electronic records thing down. But no. Paperwork here is all on paper, and often surprisingly badly filed too. I never thought I'd find myself nostalgically remembering the computer based system of my undergrad when you couldn't find a person to speak to, but changing your address or just about any other piece of information took nothing more than logging into a website and updating the relevant information.


So. When I went into the international office for my monthly sign-in (a requirement of my scholarship) I reminded them that I had moved and asked them to make sure that future letters be sent to my new address. They apologized and then started talking about my bank book. I was confused, so I asked what they were talking about. It turns out they got more than my address wrong, they actually sent me the wrong letter! What they thought they had sent me was a letter from the friends of the university association. The association, worried about the affect of economic difficulties on foreign students, had decided to give all foreign students (even those on scholarship) at the university a lump sum to help them through any difficulties. The international office wanted my bank account info so that they could deposit Y30,000. I was asked if would be willing to give them this information within the next week.

I left the office in a much better mood, but dogged by the worry that I should contact the Publisher's Clearinghouse Prize Patrol with my address change!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Thinking Day

Lord Baden Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts, and his wife, shared February 22 as their birthday. It is still celebrated today, as one of the biggest events in the scouting year. Today is World Thinking Day, a day for Girl Guides and Scouts around the world to think about each other, the incredible movement Lord Baden Powell started, and the annual theme.

The theme chosen by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), this year was "stop the spread of AIDS, malaria, and other diseases." In my area, it was decided that we would enlarge that to the general theme of health for our annual area event. Eleven units from the area participate, with upwards of 150 girls and leaders. Last year we had an international event, and the girls visited booths for the 4 World Centres as well as ones for Japan and Korea. A friend and fellow Sangam volunteer helped me run the India booth. This year I found myself volunteering to run the booth again, this time trying to add an international flair to health. I enlisted the help of a variety of Brownie handbooks I've collected from around the world, and did a presentation on the ways in which 6-9 year-olds learn about health/safety in Guiding/Scouting.

I had the girls start by looking at the photographs, and asked them which uniform they liked the most, and which badges they liked the best. Canada, the UK, and New Zealand have all recently overhauled their uniforms to make them more appealing to girls. I remember how excited we were as girls when the old Brownie dress was first replaced by a striped t-shirt. I remember the hype when I was a leader and the brown t-shirts were replaced by more appealing peachy orange shirts. I was expecting the girls to like these uniforms the best but was rather suprised to find that while a few girls picked the pink t-shirts of the Kiwi uniform, almost all the girls chose the green blouse and skirt of the Philippines, the most traditional of the uniforms (also the one most similar to what they were wearing). When I mentioned this to the other leaders they weren't surprised, which surprised me even more. Were the girls today just choosing the skirt because they thought it looked nicer, not because it was the one they wanted to wear? Or are Japanese girls more used to uniforms with skirts?

I talked a little bit about what Brownies in each of the 8 countries (Canada, the US, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the UK) learn about health and had the girls guess which country I was talking about. Sometimes this was easy - "Little Friends" in Sri Lanka learn how to deal with snake bites, to walk 10 m with a weight of at least 1 kg balanced on their head, the importance of drinking at least 5 glasses of water everyday, and how to mix rehydration solution. In Canada Brownies learn about hypothermia and frostbite, and play outdoor games. In the US Brownies have a huge number of choices (at least twice many of the other countries) of individual interest patches, and are taught to have confidence in their uniqueness while they are encouraged to think about how their bodies are changing.

After the country had been matched to its program, we played memory - matching badge and country name. The girls seemed to enjoy themselves and both girls and leaders alike were fascinated by all the different badge books. It was a fun event to plan, and made me realize again that while the packaging varies widely, the contents of Guiding/Scouting around the world doesn't change much. (and that I'm going to have to keep collecting Brownie books from as many countries as I can!)

We ended the day, as always, with the friendship circle (the squeeze took a looooooong time to go through 150 people!) and closing song. As we sang I thought about all the Thinking Day events I've partipated in over the years - sticking pennies on a world map as a Brownie, laying flowers at the foot of pictures of Lord and Lady Baden Powell at my first Japanese Thinking Day, and of course the incredible day at Sangam my year in India. I thought also about my Guiding friends (one of whom has also been planning her own event over the past few days) and realized, once again, how lucky I am to be a part of an organization that has given me so much.

(Then, because I had been up most of the night planning, and because I spent the day in a freezing school gym wearing a t-shirt and talking almost constantly, I just about keeled over. I barely managed to get home, and as soon as I did I crashed for a three hour nap!)

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Flower Arrangement

I've been at the museum for the past two days, helping set up the upcoming special exhibit. It has been a lot of fun and has given me the opportunity to work on something different from my usual translation and editing. The museum is currently preparing two different special exhibits, one of the cover art for the magazine/journal published by the foundation, and one of dolls recently donated to the museum. The exhibits are completely unrelated and being held in different spaces, but the same curator is in charge and much of the preparation is going on together.

I spent most of yesterday scoring, cutting, and folding plastic sheets to make protective covers for some of the nearly 150 magazines to be displayed. The actual work was repetitive and somewhat dull, but we worked in the special exhibit space where the dolls were being set up, so I enjoyed watching the curator responsible for the exhibit as she ran about, the doll specialists as they arranged the dolls, and the exhibit professionals as they worked on exhibit cases/made stands/pinned labels/any of the other million little tasks that go into putting together an exhibit.

I spent most of today attaching branches of fake plum flowers to three wooden screens. Two of the screens will block off a doorway that won't be used, and the other screen will be placed in the main lobby, holding pamphlets and enticing visitors upstairs to the exhibit. The curator in charge of the exhibit gave me free reign to arrange the flowers, saying it was up to me how they were displayed. The exhibit specialist (who had built the screens) kept an eye on me as I started. When I finished the first screen he complimented me generously, saying I had a good eye. He and the curator chatted a bit, admiring the work, and she assured him that I was the one to give this type of work to. I was pretty happy to catch that comment. As the only English-speaker at the museum I know I have a valuable skill set, but it sure is nice to be useful for something besides my English ability! As a good friend remarked, I'm anal about this kind of thing, which I guess is a good thing?!

My screens:

When I left today the exhibit guys were using brightly coloured material to cover the bottoms of cases and as bunting from the ceiling. The curator was also plotting to make a wreath of fake plum blossoms to adorn the large stone bust in the lobby... There is also a small discount offered to visitors who wear pink (the favourite colour of the women who donated the dolls). It should be an amusing change for the face of the museum which can be rather serious most of the time!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


I've noticed that quite often foreign bloggers in Japan comment on how difficult/impossible it is to make meaningful and close friendships with Japanese people. While I agree it can be difficult, days like the past few remind me just how possible and rewarding those friendships can be. Here are just two examples.

On the weekend I spent a few hours at a museum with a good friend from school. She is my sempai (student senior to me), having graduated last year, and was assigned as my tutor my first year at school. We became friends quickly, sharing a love of museums (duh, we're both in museum studies!). We both tend to spend far far FAR longer in any given exhibit than those we call "regular people." We are a good fit and have gotten to know each other really well. Her tendancy to be late drives me crazy on a regular basis, but I feel very lucky to have met her.

I recently met a different kind of somebody else. It is still very new and I don't know where it is going, but it has brought a smile to my face and a skip to my step. This is a bit of a change from the past few months when I have been rather frustrated and unhappy. Many of my friends have noticed both my uncharacteristic blues and my recent happiness. Today at work I had two close male Japanese friends tell me how happy and relieved they were to see me smiling again. I was touched by their evident concern and realized how lucky I am to have two big brothers to worry about me. Just like big brothers, however, they gleefully took every opportunity today to make fun of me and my goofy grin.

So there is my two cents...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Barentine Day

I remember in elementary school we used to decorate Valentines boxes that we would then hang on our desks or by our lockers. Kids would make cards, or normally just write a name on the back of a store-bought card and slip it into the boxes of other students. Our teacher would always urge us to be fair and give cards to EVERYBODY in the class, but there seemed to always be one or two boys who didn't get anything. The rest of us would sit there with our cards, often from box sets with cutesy illustrations and some sort of bad pun or the line "Be my Valentine."

Outside of elementary school, Valentines Day seemed to be about flowers and chocolates, and maybe a nice dinner in a romantic restaurant.

Valentines Day in Japan is another one of those Western traditions that has been adopted and... well... changed quite a bit in the process...

Here February 14th is a day for women to give chocolates to the men in their life. If there is a guy they like he gets preferably a homemade treat, although expensive store bought goodies will also do. Other men, men that the women do not like but feel they have to be nice to, get what are called "giri-choco" (literally duty-chocolate). These chocolates, as with any gift in Japanese society, must be reciprocated. The occasion for this reciprocation is March 14, "White Day," when men give women (white) chocolate or candy in return.

My host father in southern Japan is the principal of an elementary school. Every year he gets chocolates from various students and brings it home (he doesn't actually like chocolate, but makes a big fuss over every gift and the girls LOVE him). My host mother (who loves chocolate but hates the work involved with Valentines) then makes a list of all the girls who gave chocolate, with a guesstimate of how much they spent on the gift. Prior to White Day she will then go out and buy reciprocatory gifts which my host-father will endeavour to give to the girls who gave him chocolate - without singling them out (so as not to make the other kids jealous).

Two years ago, when I was teaching English my cousin visited me just before Valentines and we made a huge batch of peanut butter cups. I gave these out to students and co-workers and it was a big hit - many of the young Japanese guys who taught at the cram school were sooooo excited to be given home-made Valentines chocolates, it was really sweet! The trouble was I quit at the beginning of March - before White Day! Sigh.

This year I'm making peanut butter cups again. I started by melting the chocolate and peanut butter in a pan...

and then I spooned the mixture into heart-shaped foil cups...

and... ta da!

This year, the chocolates (one box of milk and one of dark)

got wrapped up real purty-like

and are going to be given to one particular guy. He isn't Japanese, however, so doesn't feel the need to wait until March. He didn't even wait until Valentines Day to take a page from my elementary school memories and ask me to be his Valentine!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Another new look...

I'm feeling more colourful now and the black was just... well... here's a new look again!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Well-mannered Valentines

So its February, which means Valentines Day is just around the corner. Stores in Japan certainly don't let you forget that. Chocolates and chocolate making supplies are displayed front and centre to entice the female population to buy or make all sorts of treats for the men in their lives.

This month's Tokyo Metro poster is also Valentines-themed. The couple from last month have been enticed up off the floor but are still in the way. They are sitting in the priority seats, snuggled up together and eating heart shaped goodies. After watching the antics month after month, poor old guy has finally come to serious harm and has broken his leg. He looks truly annoyed as he glares at the young couple, who in their love-struck (and sugar-overload hazed) state are oblivious.

This is actually an issue that does need to be addressed. Whether the poster will do it or not, I don't know, but it is a problem. The other day I had a friend ask me whether "priority seat" was the proper translation for the Japanese term. I thought for a minute and got confused. I couldn't figure out what term was used in Canada. My friend suggested "Disabled Seating" I remarked that with PC language that wasn't used. My friend was somewhat amused by my inability to come up with the proper English term. I finally came up with "Courtesy Seats." But I'm not sure that that is even used in North America? The more that I thought about it the less sure I was that buses and trains actually had special seating areas, except those for passengers in wheelchairs - with seats that fold up and belts and whatnot. Help! What term is used? Or do they not exist?

Either way, I told my friend that even if such seats existed, the average person would still give up their seat, wherever it was, to somebody who looked like they needed it more. The lack of such action by your average Japanese train passenger is something commented on by a large number of foreigners. Especially noteworthy is the people (normally younger) who feign sleep (you can occasionally see them peeking out and closing their eyes really quickly) so that they don't have to give up their seat.

To their credit, the average Japanese commute is longer than that in Canada. If you're only going 10 or 20 minutes it isn't a big deal to stand, but 40 minutes? an hour? That's a different story. Not that excuses anything, because the little old lady nearly bent in two, well she's probably going more than 5 minutes too, and it is even harder for her to stand.

That rant aside, I'm not sure this poster has framed the message properly. The young guy is the one doing everything wrong and yet here is is in February cuddling with his girl and eating homemade goodies. The creepy old guy is a goody-goody and does nothing more than look on in disgust at the various antics being had. He is left alone and injured however.

The message of these posters seems to be coming clear to me now - disobey the rules and have fun or obey them and be bitter and alone. Huh. Maybe I should stop giving up my seat, and start sitting on the floor, drinking till I pass out, running for closing train doors, and shaking my wet umbrella all over everybody...