Friday, 28 May 2010

How George ruined my lunch

I was making fried rice for my bento last night when I realized George's grand kids are back, trying to assert their squatter's rights to my apartment.

There was Phoebe, as bold as can be sauntering across the stove hood. I couldn't use my usual method of attack - the paralyzing spray as I was worried about immobilizing myself by spraying my lunch. I looked for something to scoop up Phoebe so as to escort her to a watery grave, but when I looked back Phoebe was gone. Assuming she had escaped through a crack to regale her siblings and cousins with her daring deed of revenge against me. Little did I know she had sacrificed herself for an even greater case of revenge.

I'm sure you can see where this is going even if I didn't see anything till went to take my second bite of fried rice and saw Phoebe - antennas waving defiantly even in death.

Needless to say I went to the conbini for a new lunch and stopped on my way home for reinforcements. Last year I put out lots of cockroach traps last year and they seemed to work. I'm not going to take Phoebe's suicide attack lightly - this is war!

(I went to put a trap under the sink and discovered I had inadvertently squashed Phoebe's big brother, Gentle Jim, a sweet-natured but rather slow guy. He had gotten sandwiched in between the bottom of the cupboard door and the cupboard... FLUSH! Two down... however million left to go...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Things I love Thursday

Here's a few things I'm loving this week

- a 30% raise! Yup... I got a raise at work, and a pretty significant one at that. It came somewhat out of the blue and is rather hush-hush but I'm VERY grateful. Tthe extra money is obviously welcome (and should make possible actually paying U back reasonably soon for my share of the flights we booked for our summer vacation!) but perhaps even more gratifying is knowing the museum values me and my skills

- having a weekend! Part of the changes at work has meant I now work Mon-Fri instead of Tues-Sat. Having a whole weekend to share with U is important and I'm hopefull that I'll be able to get more done now - as in seeing friends, going to museums (usually closed on Mondays) and maybe even going camping!!

- actually going to see a movie for the first time in YEARS and and AND having caramel popcorn! (I fell in love with movie theatre caramel corn in India but haven't had it since. mmm!)

- summer travel plans! U and I have booked our flights to Indonesia! A good friend and her husband are there for the year and while neither U nor I can take much time off we're both excited for a week in the tropics - jungles and temples and relaxing with friends by the pool - YAY!

but, the number one thing I'm loving this week is
- having had the chance to meet U's grandma. I know it meant a lot to her as well as both U and I.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Parfait Parfaite

My father often had groups of students over to our house – his research assistants, the Model UN team, his honours class… It happened regularly, but I remember one dinner in particular. I would have been about eight years old and it had been a gorgeous sunny Vancouver summer day so we had eaten outside on the deck. A precocious only child I was in my element – loving the attention of all the amazingly cool undergrad students around me. So when my father offered us our desert choices – chocolate ice cream or fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream – I was feeling bold enough to talk back a little. Cheekily I asked “what about strawberries and CHOCOLATE ice cream?”

My father made a face as if I had suggested putting anchovies on chocolate ice cream and said in a strangled voice “strawberries and CHOCOLATE ice cream?!” I nodded enthusiastically as my father continued to make faces. He finally relented – offering strawberries and chocolate ice cream as a choice in a voice dripping with disgust. Much to my delight over half the students sheepishly raised their hands for my desert choice, and my father was forced to admit that I was not the only one who wanted to mix strawberries and chocolate ice cream.

More than 20 years later I’m still wondering why my father found my request so odd. Chocolate-covered strawberries are a DELICIOUS invention, so what is so wrong with chocolate ice cream with strawberries? I STILL don’t understand my father’s disgust. But perhaps I do like odd or different combinations. I must admit I’m not normally a fan of Japanese parfaits as there is invariably something in it that I’d rather wasn’t. For example, I’d much rather my chocolate parfait without bananas (a year in India and visits to Sri Lanka and the Philippines have made me unable to eat the tasteless gloop that gets sold as “bananas” in Japan) and my green tea parfait without sweetened red bean jam (I love red bean sweets, but for some reason I don’t like it in my parfait, I guess I find it too sweet or something?)

So when La Fuji Mama announced that the Washoku Warriors challenge this month (head on over to la Fuji Mama's to check out the round up), issued by Elizabeth Andoh herself, was to assemble our very own Japanese-style parfait I was excited. The only problem was the suggested recipes were for the red bean jam or an even sweeter brown sugar syrup. Not wanting either on my parfait I thought about trying to make a less sweet white bean version of the jam (I tend to prefer shiroan, or white bean paste, sweets to the more sweet red version). In the end, however, I settled on using the brown sugar syrup recipe as a very rough base for a nutty kinako (soy bean powder) syrup. It turned out thicker than wanted, so at the last minute I thinned it out with some milk and it turned out perfectly – nutty and flavourful with a hint of sweetness.

And that was pretty much the extent of my actual cooking. Sure, I mixed up some Birds English custard with matcha powder in it, but it wasn’t until after I had bought my green tea ice cream that I realized Andoh has a recipe for it. Sigh. Next time… although I’m not sure my blender could handle it!

So while I wimped out on the whole cooking thing a little, I had great fun assembling my parfait.

I started with my green tea custard, added some green tea yokan (sweet bean jelly – of course this was way too sweet and should have been left out), then green tea ice cream and brown rice flakes. Then more custard, warabi mochi (bracken starch dumplings in sweet kinako sugar), and more ice cream. I topped this with more brown rice flakes and my kinako syrup.

(note to self - don't try taking many many photos of a glass of ice cream on a warm day, there is a reason why tv commercials use substitutes!)

It was delicious. I’m definitely going to make the kinako syrup again. Same goes for the green tea custard as I loved the way the bitterness of the green tea mixed with the sweet custard. I loved the warabi mochi with ice cream (they have a slightly different texture and are much more flavourful than the plain white shiratama that are often found in Japanese-style parfaits). I also have plans to try making frozen yogurt and trying some fruity parfaits with the weather heating up.

But, I’m not sure I need all the toppings, because Hagen Daas in Japan has just come out with a special seasonal flavour: cookies n’ green tea – their sinful green tea ice cream with chunks of dark chocolate cookie goodness. Mmmm!

Monday, 24 May 2010


While I guessed that it was unlikely that U's grandma would be recovering enough to go to the nearby restaurant for dinner with all of us (or attend the wedding she was planning for me and her grandson) I had been looking forward to going to see her again. Unfortunately, however, that won't be happening.

Grandma had a visit this morning from one of U's cousins and the girl's little baby. The visit was a great success, with great-grandchild and great-grandma laughing and enjoying themselves thoroughally. Shortly after the visit grandma passed away peacefully.

U and I are both very glad we went to see her, and take heart in how happy she was to meet me and how relieved and pleased she was that U is happy and "taken care of."

The funeral and all are happening on Thursday and Friday, and U told me not to take the time off work, so I won't be attending my first Japanese funeral. I will be lighting some incense for her, however, and having an unagi dinner in her honour very soon.

Daily Squish

My commute to work is fairly short but includes two transfers and three lines - one of which is one of the busiest lines in Tokyo. Going to school I always missed the morning peak rush and rarely found the evening peak to be quite so concentrated. But now I'm on the train at the end of the peak morning rush and that means that if anything goes wrong the chain of dominoes collapses. Trains get delayed meaning more people waiting at a station, meaning more time needed to push your way on and off, meaning more delays, meaning... a vicious (and sweaty and elbow in the ribs-filled) circle.

The Saturday before last there had been a jumper further out the line AND mechanical trouble a stop or two down the line. By the time I got to the station things were beginning to clear up but the trains were packed and more people were pushing on at each stop. On the other side of the car was a very young and over-made up bleached haired mother with a young kid in her arms. While fellow passengers seemed to be trying to give them space the train was packed and every time a new group got on there was a push and the little girl would cry out. By the time her mother finally got off the poor girl was crying and yelling that she hated trains because they hurt. I wouldn't be surprised if the child was traumatized by the experience and will take some time before she happily rides a train again - heck I know that's how I feel!

Another day last week various delays meant the train was packed and I had one guy's elbow in the back of my head and armpit on my shoulder, a lady's shoulder wedged into the side of my ribs, another guy standing on my foot, and a little old lady shoved into my chest. When we got to the the major transfer station everybody wanted to get off at the same time - whether there were people in front of them or not. This lead to a Three Stooges type moment with everyone pushing to get out but getting stuck in the bottleneck. And then something gave and like the cork on a bottle of champagne, people popped out of the doors. One lady, facing backwards, didn't move fast enough for the impatient horde behind her and was sent flying.

Earlier this week I got to the station and - on autopilot I walked to the escalator. Something wasn't right, however as there were people coming down the up escalator! A quick glance to the other side to confirmed the regular down escalator was still moving down. My confusion turned to dread as I looked up to the platform and saw the stairs nearly fully blocked with lines of people. I lined up myself but had to let the first packed train go by before I could board. I wasn't even sure I'd make it on to the next train but the person behind me was insistent on getting on so I was pushed on and in. When we all transferred one lady in stiletto heels was doing the strangest bird-pecking sort of neck stretching jumping stunted almost run to get down the stairs to her train. I'm not sure it made her any faster, but it did mean she didn't have to fight any others off - we were all standing around staring at her!

Can you tell how much I dread my morning commute??

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Things I love Thursday

- spring cleaning - I've been going through bookshelves/cupboards and chucking and reorganizing things. I love feeling more organized (although I'm not so happy with the pile of haven't-decided-what-to-do-with-it-but-don't-want-it-on-the-shelves that is currently taking up half of my floor space...)

- home-made yogurt for breakfast - my second batch of yogurt was even better than the first - more solid and less gloopy. In general it is less sour or strong tasting than store-bought yogurt. I've been loving having it for breakfast with fruit and a little caramel sauce... yum!

- translating for a tour at the museum - while I find translating guided tours at the museum very frustrating as it takes twice as long and leaves me wishing they'd just let me do the tour myself (I spent two summers as an undergrad working as a tour guide in the Canadian Rockies and I enjoy giving tours, trying to figure out what information to share with the particular group, how to keep them interested, etc...) I love having the opportunity to share the museum with visitors. It had been a couple of years since my last tour-translation, and I was very happy to be reminded of the improvement in my Japanese as I got through it with only one minor problem when I didn't know how to translate a Japanese version of a Chinese name.

- feeling valued at the museum - my days are currently divided between two departments. A different department asked me to do a couple of different projects recently and then the other day requested a full day on a regular basis. While this won't change my hours or salary and most of the work will be straight English translation and proofreading, I am excited about learning more about how this department works. I also just generally love feeling useful!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Yet another flower

(I do take pictures of things besides flowers, but I figure the flowers are prettier and more interesting than all the old shrines U and I visited on Sunday...)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Things I love Thursday - Eating well with a little help from my friends

With my beloved Canucks season-ending loss the other night I can sadly no longer list listening/watching hockey games to my things I love Thursday list - it'll be another 4 months before I can say that again too... sigh.

But, on the flip side, there are plenty of other things I'm loving this Thursday, like:

- home-made yoghurt! I was given a container by a coworker to start me off. I had some with dinner tonight and wow! It was amazing! I am looking forward to having yoghurt with fruit for breakfast, especially when the weather gets hot and muggy and I loose my appetite.

- dinner tonight - I found myself craving fajitas and while I ended up with something closer to open-faced quesadillas, it was YUMMY! Since I can't find toritillas on short notice, I started with a somewhat thinner version of la Fuji Mama's Tibetan Flatbread. Once this was done I topped it with grated cheese, and then ladled on the warm grilled chicken/onions/mushrooms (no peppers due to my allergies). The mixture had been flavoured with a few spoonfuls of the huge container of fajita seasoning I inherited from a friend leaving Japan. This was then topped with my coworker's home-made yoghurt. It was messy but oh so yummy!

- Genghis Khan - no, not the Mongolian warlord, but a Japanese dish mostly found in Hokkaido - grilled lamb, sometimes in a hotpot, sometimes just grilled on bbq grill. I love lamb and have the chance to eat it so rarely here in Japan. But tomorrow night a number of my coworkers and I are going out for Genghis Khan... yum!

All this yummy food is because of friends/coworkers, so I'm definitely loving my friends this Thursday too!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Bookcase Tour Tuesday - Destination Sado

One of the highlights of our trip to Sado was a visit to the Sado Kinzan - the old gold mine. It was on my must-see on Sado list, although I'm not sure I really had any idea what to expect. I ended up being very impressed with the entire facility - the Edo period mine has been fixed up with modern day paths and the old mine shafts and whatnot fitted out with life size moving mannequins that manage to avoid being kitschy and do a very good job of showing what work in the mines would have been like. Each display is clearly signed in bilingual Japanese-English plastic signs designed to look like old wooden signboards. The Meiji period mines have been left relatively untouched and, because they require an extra fee to enter, draw in far less visitors. They are much more "raw" and there is even one section that is unlit, with flashlights left out for visitors who want to explore! The two-room museum is impressive as well, using dioramas to tie into the mannequin displays, but supplementing them with simple and clear explanatory panels (again in Japanese and English) and also original objects. The multiple layers of explanation and the visual-ness of the dioramas makes it easy for visitors to gain as little or as much as they want. I was very impressed at how they made what could be a very dull historical site so interesting!

But, this being a BOOKcase tour post, I suppose I should share some images of the museum's guide book! A very simple and small booklet, it cost only 100 yen. Since the pictures show what appear to be old signs in the mines, I'm guessing the booklet is rather old, but English explanations have been added in with stickers on the bottom of each page.

Perhaps not an eye-candy type book, but the mine and the museum shouldn't be missed if you ever find yourself on Sado!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Handshakes and baby pics

We got on the road later yesterday than we had planned, but we arrived at U's parents' place mid-afternoon. Any awkwardness was quickly abated when U tried to enter the house by one of the sliding doors on the side - and his mother and I simultaneously reprimanded him, saying we should enter the house properly by the front door. U just shrugged his shoulders, seemingly unsure why such formality was needed, while his mother and I laughed.

My chocolates were a big hit, his sister particularly pleased with the nuts on the one she chose. We chatted a bit over iced coffee, talking about ice hockey and Toshogu shrines - at which point I somewhat tongue-in-cheek apologized for the strange hobbies I was causing U to pick up. His mother laughed and his sister said "not at all, I'm just happy that my big brother has found somebody that fits him so well!"

The four of us headed out to U's aunt and uncle's house on the other side of the stream to visit his grandmother - a tiny old woman curled under a fuzzy blanket in a hospital-type bed set up in a tatami room in the house. She was overjoyed to meet me, repeatedly reaching out a shaking hand to clasp mine and shake it much more vigorously than her frail body seemed capable of! Over and over again she thanked me for visiting and entrusted U to me (U ha yoroshiku oneigai shimasu). As we were about to leave she gripped my hand and leaned towards me, looking me straight in the eyes and said "I must get better very quickly so that we can all go to the restaurant down the street together." I squeezed her hand and assured her that I looked forward to going to the restaurant with her, and yes, she had better get better soon. As we then left I heard her saying to U's younger sister that "U's bride (oyomei-san) looks very kind, doesn't she?!" Apparently she followed this up with a vow to get better very quickly so that she could attend the wedding. (ummm... wedding? ummmm....)

Having had a quick cup of tea with U's aunt and uncle the two of us then escaped for a wander around his old neighbourhood - the local shrine and a big park just a few minutes walk away. We found a bench in one part of the park, overlooking a large grassy area dotted with young families playing catch, running about, and chasing dogs. As the sun set, however, it got a bit chilly - and then we were dive-bombed by a toy airplane so we decided to head back.

U's father arrived home and the five of us headed to the nearby restaurant (I somehow felt guilty that I wasn't waiting for grandma to get better and join us!). Dinner went over well, conversation and much laughing. The best part of the evening, however, came when we went back to the house and U's father pulled out the old home movies and his mother pulled out U's (very dusty) baby albums! U and I had a great time looking at his old photos and we all laughed over movies of the other baby sister making a mess of a rapidly melting popsicle, and of U pulling a minor temper-tantrum when he couldn't quite get the hang of riding his bike.

U and I headed off to repeated requests from the entire family to come again soon - and promises for his mother, sister, and I to go to an ume-shu bar I know in Tokyo! U's mother later texted him to thank him for the visit, saying that him bringing me for a visit was the best mother's day gift she had ever gotten.

I'd say the day was a success, eh?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Ready, set...

I decided to follow Liz's advice, and go with a sweet gift to give U's family when we visit them later today. I couldn't resist making it myself, so the other day I spent a number of hours making maple truffles - based on Bakerella's oreo truffles recipe.

I started with maple truffles covered in white chocolate and sprinkled with maple sugar

but ran out of white chocolate so mixed in some walnuts to the truffles mixture and covered them with dark chocolate and maple walnuts (that I managed NOT to burn when I put them under the fish griller on my stove - yay!)

When I ran out of maple walnuts I gave them an extra covering of dark chocolate, ending up with three different types of chocolates. They have been wrapped up all purty-like and are sitting in the fridge ready for us to take.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Dum da dum dum da DA!

The Vapors may have sung about turning Japanese, but the opposite happens too. I've been seeing it happen - and U hasn't even been to Canada yet! So, here's my top 5 ways to tell your Japanese partner is turning Canadian.

5) They love poutine (but seriously, who doesn't love fries with gravy and cheese?!?

4) They appropriate your Taiga jacket (for non-Vancouverites Taiga is an outdoor wear and gear store in Vancouver, its goretex rain jacket is the unnofficial municipal costume).

3) They would rather eat sausages with maple syrup or eggs benedict with smoked salmon for breakfast than natto or grilled fish.

2) They becoming a huge hockey fan.

1) When waiting in the car they hum the old Hockey Night in Canada theme song and drum their fingers on the steering wheel in perfect time.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Things I love Thursday

With today being the first day after a string of holidays, the museum was closed today so I had the day off. I was looking forward to sleeping in, and had a long list of things I was planning to get accomplished, and was really looking forward to actually watching a playoff hockey game in real-time. I woke up this morning with a pounding headache, however, and barely made it through two periods of the hockey game (Vancouver was down and ended up loosing) before having to crawl back into bed in the hopes that a short nap would help the tylenol do its work. That ended up being the story of my day - try and do something, then need to curl up for a nap until the pain in my head subsided enough for me to get up and do something, only to need to crawl back to bed again.

So not really a great day for a Things I love Thursday, but still, here goes...

- the new shawl I've started knitting - I cast on last night (and then ripped it out and cast on again when I realized I had done so with the wrong needles... ugh) and after doing a few rows I decided that the pattern just wasn't working with the yarn. So I hit Ravelry, found the perfect pattern and started learning how to knit entrelac - a type of pattern that looks crazy confusing as you have little squares going in every direction, but once you get the hang of is very straightforward. I love the way it is working, as the yarn is variegated and instead of spreading the colour out into long long stripes and mixing it all together, the little squares mean that the colour is in blocks, and it looks incredible. Since the shawl is for me, I'm even more excited about it!

- my coworkers - one of the best things about my job at the museum is the other part-time people I work with. They are fun and we tease each other a lot. A new girl has just started and seeing the workplace through her eyes has been a reminder of just how much I like my coworkers (as was how lonely it was being the only one there on Tuesday!)

- my virtual support network - posting the other day about how nervous I was about meeting U's family, and having family and friends, as well as virtual friends I've never met, there to reassure me and give me advice.

- cooking experiments - since I'm allergic to tomatoes I tend to make a cream/cheese sauce for pasta. It is one of my quick meals, normally I'll cheat with a package sauce that I augment with fresh veggies and perhaps some meat as well. One of the things I did accomplish today was to make up a big pot of home-made sauce. I didn't have a recipe, just experimented and ended up with a delicious spinach cream (with skim milk) sauce with three kinds of mushrooms and onions and pork. I'm looking forward to being able to freeze it and have quick home-made meals.

- having a microwave! U was given one by a friend/collegue who recently got married. U had agreed to take it, figuring we could use it when we move in together (yup, watch this space...) but in the meantime suggested that I have it at my place as he doesn't have a kitchen. I still haven't gotten used to having it, and so am not using it all that much, but I love being able to easily warm up the milk for my morning latte!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Sunset on Sado Island

U and I took a wonderful short Golden Week trip to Niigata prefecture and Sado Island. We lucked out with our hotel on Sado - a real room with a view! Arriving about a half an hour before sunset we checked in and then watched the sunset over the water from our window - what a view! We left the window open and fell asleep to the sound of the waves lapping on the beach below.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this urgent update...

No bookcase tour post this Tuesday, although I have a post half-done, it'll have to wait for next week.

U and I had a great Golden Week trip to Niigata, mostly Sado. We went Toshogu-hunting, did a short hike, enjoyed gorgeous weather and beautiful scenery, and just generally had fun. We got back last night and avoided most of the crazy "U-turn rush" only getting stuck in traffic for a few hours. I had to work today, and U went home to his parents and to see his grandmother who had just been released from the hospital. I'll leave for another day my rant over the fact that the doctors and the family haven't told grandma about her diagnosis, and just say that she's been diagnosed with cancer - she's 92 years old and it has spread through pretty much all her internal organs, so there isn't much the doctors can do.

U and I have been talking about me meeting his family for nearly six months now, and his family has increasingly been bugging him about bringing me home - to the point where they've all but told him not to bother coming home unless he has me in tow. But not getting regular vacation at the museum, and then things like Girl Scouts and whatnot taking up what weekends I do have off...

We had finally begun talking days, and decided to go next weekend, but that all changed this evening. U dropped me off at work this morning and then went home to see his grandmother. She is doing worse than he had thought, so he asked me to take Sunday off work and go with him to meet her and his parents. I assented immediately without a second thought and there is no doubt in my mind that I am going. But now that I start thinking about it... my shoulders are starting to tense up with nerves!

Sure, I've done the meet-the-parents thing before. And normally (KNOCK WOOD!) parents love me. There was my first boyfriend, in high school. I met his brother and parents and grandmother at his birthday dinner at the family favourite diner. I as so nervous I made myself sick to my stomach and could hardly eat anything. Besides worrying that I didn't eat enough, his parents and I got along well. More recently, I met my American ex's parents and aunt and uncle and cousins at the family American Thanksgiving celebration (a month and a half after he had met my aunt and uncle and cousins for Canadian Thanksgiving). I was so tense that the softest of touches on my shoulder was enough to make me yelp in pain. By the next time I visited his parents, however, his very non-demonstrational father gave me a hug and his mother had raided her jewelry box for me.

U has told me there is nothing to be worried about. His family took the news he was dating a foreigner very well (he's 31 and has never mentioned a girl to his family before, my guess is they're just relieved that he's met somebody!) - his mother's response was that she had always thought international marriages were WONDERFUL, and his youngest sister couldn't stop talking about how she had ALWAYS wanted to go to Canada and wasn't this FABULOUS that she could now go to CANADA!

But then I've read lots and lots of blog posts by foreign women married to Japanese guys complaining about their inlaws, the mother-in-law in particular. Stories that don't do anything to calm my nausea or unknot my shoulders. And U IS the eldest son, heck he's the ONLY son...

I've told U we should pick up a couple of bouquets of Mother's Day flowers for his mother and grandmother, but beyond that I'm at a loss as to what to do (I'm thinking muscle relaxants for the shoulders and gravol for the stomach might be a good thing...) eeeeeek.

Any advice?