Christmas in Japan

Kenny and I decided to (sort of) celebrate Christmas in Japan this year. We didn’t get a tree or decorate the apartment, and we exchanged gifts long before the date (and not at the same time), but nonetheless we (sort of) celebrated Christmas.

Christmas in Japan is very different from how it is in the states. Japan is not a Christian nation at all, so Christmas here is 100% about the consumerism. It’s about as important as Halloween is to the US. Families usually get a big bucket of KFC for dinner and are shocked if you tell them Christmas dinner is essentially another Thanksgiving. After dinner comes the Christmas cake, which traditionally is a yellow cake frosted with whipped cream and covered in strawberries. I’m fairly certain everyone in Japan thinks strawberries are in season right now because they’re everywhere. I assume they’re getting them from Australia. Young couples usually go on dates to very fancy restaurants on Christmas. Kenny and I did that when were here two years ago, but decided it wasn’t worth it this year. For one, Kenny had to work both Christmas Eve and Day, so we would’ve had to wait for him to come home before catching a 90 minute train to Tokyo which would be packed and blah blah blah who cares.

My parents did send us gifts for the holidays. They bought us a nice Blu-Ray player (which we are very grateful for). A few weeks later they mailed us two boxes of Cheezits, two bags of Hershey’s Kisses, and two iTunes gift cards. We were happy to get anything, and we certainly didn’t expect so much!

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On Christmas Eve. we didn’t have the traditional Christmas dinner of Japan (fried chicken). Instead, we bought a roasted one. We would’ve made it ourselves, but we don’t have an oven (no one does; it’s extremely annoying). We do have an awesome tiny mom and pop chicken store a kilometer away. They make chicken several different ways, and also sell it raw. Needless to say, we buy all of our chicken from them. The chicken people are like family.

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We did get a Christmas cake! Again, would’ve made one, but we don’t have an oven. We bought it from the local bakery. We went for the traditional one I described above. Neither of us like frosting on cakes, so the whipped cream was fantastic. It was the best cake I’ve ever had. We’ve only had one piece each so far; we’re saving the rest for the weekend.

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After dinner and cake we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and enjoyed fruit, hot cocoa, and cookies.

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Christmas Day, once Kenny returned from work we went to a really nice bar a block away. They don’t exactly make Christmas-y drinks so we settled on fun ones and got mojitos.

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Then the food came. Check out that tuna sashimi. There was plenty of wasabi and avocado. It had been a few weeks since I’d had any sashimi or sushi, and I don’t think I’ll ever go that long again.

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This is our favorite item at the bar. Chicken covered with some kind of miso sauce. We usually talk the owner into giving us some of the miso to take home so we can put it on our own chicken.

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I’ve posted a picture of this before, but it’s worth showing again. Udon with raw egg and scallions. WOW. I don’t know how it tastes good, but it really does!

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Then came the funniest part of the night. Kenny was tired and ordered some coffee with milk. Unfortunately, the word for “and” and “with” is the same. So they brought a cup of hot coffee for Kenny and a cup of warm milk for me, thinking that’s what we wanted. We laughed through the rest of the meal, joking about going to a bar and telling the bartender what a long, hard day it’s been and asking for a pint of warm milk. But you know what? It was the best warm milk I’ve ever had. Nice and fatty, the way milk should be.

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We came home and watched Love Actually, just like I’m sure some of my readers did. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all, but we didn’t want it to. It wasn’t about that. We made it about us. And I think that’s how I want December 25th to be from now on.

This weekend, tomorrow actually, we’re going to Tokyo to meet one of Kenny’s friends who happens to be in the country on business. We are planning on going back to Rokurinsha, the tsukemen restaurant I had a post on a couple months back. More on that later.

For those of you who do celebrate Christmas, I hope it was very special!

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Thanksgiving (or lack thereof)

Everyone has been asking me if we celebrated Thanksgiving this year. I moved to Japan under the pretense that I was leaving behind those kind of American traditions. I didn’t want to do anything at all, and even if I did, turkey is impossible to find here and we don’t have an oven (still haven’t gotten used to that). But the truth was, come Thanksgiving Day in America (Friday for us), Kenny and I were homesick for our families and all the delicious food they got to eat. The day before (Thanksgiving for us, Wednesday for all of you), we had leftover miso soup. Good, but not turkey.

The next day we looked through Facebook at all of our friends’ family photos and huge dinners. We were very jealous, but we couldn’t even spend that evening together. About a week ago, the nurse at one of the schools Kenny teaches at, had a heart attack and tragically died. Kenny went to her funeral, and not knowing if it was appropriate for me to go or not, I stayed behind.

This was a traditional Japanese funeral. For more information regarding what that ceremony looks like, I highly recommend you watch Departures, a fantastic movie that won Best Foreign Film a few years ago. To be honest, I’m a little jealous I wasn’t there. I did an internship at a hospice last year for my senior thesis and it would have been very interesting to learn about Japanese rituals surrounding death. Kenny told me when he got home about 300-400 people were there, so I probably could’ve gone, too.

Kenny didn’t come back empty-handed. The custom at a Japanese funeral is to give cash. Kenny gave 3000en (about $30), the standard amount for a coworker. In return, the gift-giver gets their own gift usually equal to about a fourth or half the amount given. We got waffle cookies, jam, and tea. Like all random foods in Japan, they were very good. The box of goodies came wrapped and in a nice bag, like gifts here always do.

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There was also a beautiful card, and salt to purity the body with (which Kenny didn’t end up using as he had no idea how).

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Kenny said he needed a pick me up when he was on his way home, so he stopped at the convenience store across the street and bought us both some chocolate. Then we celebrated Thanksgiving the only way we could think of: by watching all of the Thanksgiving specials of Friends.

We do love it here. In fact, we love it so much Kenny has renewed his contract. Officially, we will be here until at least August 2015, probably a lot longer. However, we do miss our friends and family. As great as the community has been to us in Japan, around the holidays especially it is a bit isolating.

Kenny’s Story

Last week Kenny wrote me a story, and with his permission, I’m sharing it below. He claims it’s all true, but I think he may have embellished it a tad. Either way, I thought it was super sweet.

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Ichinomiya Junior High School

Each day I clean up leaves around the teacher’s parking lot, near the front of the school. With Fall in full swing, many of the leaves have already fallen and been swept up by myself and the other students who belong to the Brotherhood of Leaves, with our bamboo brooms and green dustbins. As the other students have dispersed further out into the courtyard to seek the remaining leaves, I have remained in my personal domain. Only two students clean this area with me now, Konata and Miyuki*.

Konata and Miyuki are very energetic First Years, and often spend more time cracking jokes than actually cleaning up. Miyuki loves to scold Konata for how Otoko-zuki (男好き), or Boy Crazy, she is. Konata enjoys spinning fabulous yarns about her classmates. Both of them are prone to random bits of English exclamation.

Today after I had swept up the meager amount of leaves left on my turf, I started to mill around to kill time. Wandering to behind the teacher’s cars in search of dried persimmon stems, I found Konata and Miyuki on weed duty. That is, Konata was equipped with a miniature scythe-like tool common in Japan, and Miyuki was sitting next to her holding a bamboo broom. They were talking about something non-specific until M spotted me.

Konata turned to Miyuki and said in Japanese, “Oh! I saw Mr. Ken’s wife! She’s so beautiful!”

Miyuki responded, “What! When did you see her? She’s beautiful?!”

“Yeah! So gorgeous!” She added in a bit of English flair.

“Where did you see her?” Miyuki asked.

“I saw her yesterday when I was leaving school. She was standing outside the gate,” Konata crossed her arms and tilted her head back, “and she was standing like this. With her head back and her arms crossed like this.”

“Eh!” exclaimed Miyuki.

“As I approached her, an aura of blinding light was radiating from her! I could barely look at her, she was so be-u-tea-ful,” Konata extended out her arm and held her hand out as if she was blocking the sun from her eyes. “As I got closer and closer, sparks were flying and she had a halo of beauty!”

Miyuki seemed like she was going to faint. “Did you scream out, ‘You are soooo be-u-tea-ful!’?” Miyuki posed like a Shakespearean actor delivering a proclamation of love.

At this point I simply bowed to them slightly and said, “Dômo.” Taking my broom and dustbin with me, I left the girls as they continued to discuss how beautiful you were. As I moved on to sweep up sand I could hear them discussing your hair and face for the remaining 10 minutes of cleaning time.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Sick Week

Thank God sick week is almost over. It’s fun to try new things, but this one I truly didn’t enjoy. You should know that Kenny and I don’t get sick very often, so when we do, it’s like the sky has fallen.

It all started last Thursday when Kenny complained of a sinus headache and said he was worried he was getting sick. The following morning I didn’t have a whole lot of energy so my 10k power walk was more like a light stroll. That night we went out for some really high quality sushi at a place a block away we didn’t know was there. It was the second to best sushi I’ve ever had. It was also great for Kenny’s sinuses because they used a lot of wasabi. Don’t get me wrong, I love wasabi, but after every piece of nigiri I winced for about twenty seconds.

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All was fine that night. We both left stuffed and happy. I can’t wait to go back (it was expensive, though, so we probably won’t go too often). We came home, watched a movie, and went to bed. I woke up at 3am with a really sore throat. Now, I’m a huge believer that if I can’t sleep, no one else can either. So I woke up Kenny. He doesn’t share my belief, though, so he didn’t offer me much sympathy and held me down and I fell asleep again. Of course, I did wake up an hour later and the whole process repeated itself.

We spent the whole weekend bundled up (that’s Kenny, if you can’t tell).

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Kenny got better quickly. I thought I did, but my sore throat turned into a stuffed nose. I begrudgingly stopped going on 10k walks in the mornings, and instead did one short 3k in the morning and another at night.

Once Kenny got better, he took great care of me. Any time I didn’t seem covered enough he put three blankets over me. I wasn’t too happy in this picture because just as I started to get comfortable I had to get up so I could walk with Kenny to the junior high school. Note the scarf next to me: being sick was a great time to start knitting again. I have knit anything since high school, so started with a basic scarf just seemed like a good idea. I did rib the scarf with two types of stitches, to at least make it somewhat interesting. Yesterday I made a potholder using a third kind of stitch–seed stitch. I’m going to make another one in a few days to match, but I need to make a pattern first. I’ll likely do another post in a few weeks with pictures of all I’ve made so far, once I make more.

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Seeing as yesterday was the first day I at least felt like a human again, Kenny and I rewarded ourselves with a couple どら焼き (dorayaki). Two pancake-esque patties made from castella (Japanese spongecake) filled with red bean paste. As time goes by and I’m starting to miss American foods less and less, my love of 餡子 (anko / red bean paste) gets stronger and stronger. So simple, yet so delicious.

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But today I am thrilled to announce that I was able to do a full 10k this morning. I didn’t plan on it when I left the house. I thought I would just work myself back up there, but it turns out there was no need. The more I walked, the better I felt. Besides, I really didn’t want to get myself out of the habit of doing those long walks, particularly when the weather is so perfect.

Shabu-shabu (among other things)

Yes, yes. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted. Shame on me. It’s not like nothing has been happening, either. We spent a day sightseeing around Tokyo and went to the international film festival where we got to see Tom Hanks do a Q&A. There was a largish typhoon, but it was nowhere near as bad as the recent one in the Philippines. But you see, I’ve started doing these 10k walks every morning around the time I’d be updating my blog. I prefer to update in the morning because I suspect I’ll get more readers if I post in the afternoons for everyone back home. Today I’m trying something new. It’s 1:41 PM on November 12th here in Japan (8:41PM on November 11th in Oregon), but I won’t post until tomorrow morning my time. Confused? Don’t worry about it. It’s not important.

Here’s a couple pictures from our day trip to Tokyo. It was 2-3 weeks ago, so there aren’t many just because it feels too late to talk about it now.

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The typhoon actually hit the day before our trip to Tokyo. We weren’t worried because it always seems like the day after the typhoon the weather is gorgeous. That day was no exception. We didn’t get many great pictures of the typhoon itself because…well…we didn’t want to be outside. We tried taking video but it doesn’t look great. But I thought I’d post a recent picture of what the typhoon left behind a couple weeks later.

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The river in Ichinomiya overflowed and left my usual walking route under water. By the time it cleared out, it was (and is) too muddy to walk across. Though some brave souls are still doing it, I don’t want to muddy up my only pair of tennis shoes.

Kenny’s birthday was last Friday, so we used it as an excuse to get shabu-shabu. A similar concept exists in the states at fondue restaurants. You cook meat and veggies in a hot pot at your table. It’s delicious and we left stuffed.

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After cooking the meat, there are three dipping sauces (below) to choose from: raw egg, sesame sauce, and ponzu. Kenny and I like them all, but our favorite is sesame sauce. Mmmm. Food.

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I’ll post again soon!

Katsuura (and a little Mobara)

I’ve been to a Japanese garden before, sure. Two, actually. The one in Portland and a huge one on the big island in Hawaii. I had never been to one in Japan, though, and in fact I was starting to doubt they even existed! That all changed Saturday afternoon when an English teacher Kenny works with and her daughter took us to one in their town of Katsuura. A short 30-40 minute train ride plus a 10 minute trip in their car and we were there.

My favorite part was the beginning. I just love bamboo.

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The town makes a big deal out of decorating dolls (more on that in later post). There were a few in the bamboo and many more in the shop at the end of the garden.

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The above two pictures are of a temple and perhaps the prettiest cemetery I’ve ever seen.

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After walking up a million steps, we were persuaded (easily) into getting some ice cream. I’d never tried sesame ice cream before and I have to say, it’s quite tasty. I was skeptical at first, but it was very refreshing!

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After the trip to the garden we went to some viewpoints around Katsuura beach.

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…And then out for Katsuura-style tantanmen, an award-winning type of ramen. It’s spicy, which I love, but Kenny is not as adjusted to. He said he loved it but the rest of us couldn’t help but laugh a little he was sweating profusely and kept needing to cough. He adjusted, though, and even finished off my broth after finishing his own.

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We didn’t want to miss our train, so we were rushed back to the train station where we left for Ichinomiya. We could have just gone home, but, we realized we hadn’t been to the bar across the street in a couple weeks and decided to stay out.

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That’s mikan (satsuma/mandarin orange) sake. It was SO good.

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That inside the glass is the one ice cube to rule them all. Japan uses ice cubes specifically for drinks. They’re huge so they don’t melt as fast. We joked that we should take it home and put it in the freezer and take it out when ever we wanted drinks to see how long it would last.

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Of course drinks turned into splitting some more ice cream.

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And that turned into not eating much the next day to prepare for a sushi outing on Monday. Can you believe I’ve been in Japan two months and hadn’t gotten any sushi until yesterday? That was a ridiculously long time to go without tuna. I was quickly reminded of how much better it is here than it is in the states. Yum.

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Catching Up

A while back, some viewers asked to see the exterior of our apartment. It’s nothing special, so I’ve been putting it off. However, after looking at one of the pictures, I’ve realized it’s a good idea just so I can demonstrate how small the apartment is.

We are on the third (top) floor. The side of he picture with the bedding hang drying–that’s our side; after the wall is another (empty) apartment. That is the entire length of the apartment. The width is probably 2/3 of the length. This apartment is perhaps half the size of our old one in Salem, Oregon, but we always felt it was too big anyway. Our bed is hanging over the balcony as well. We do that about once a week (along with the rest of Japan) to dry it out and air out any dust.

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Yes it’s small, but who really needs space anyway? Everyone says they need space, but that’s not really true. I imagine if/when we return to Oregon, our parents’ houses will feel huge.

I’m also worried I’ve led people to believe we constantly are going out and enjoying extravagant meals. Not true. A more typical day starts with 卵焼き (tamagoyaki) over rice. It’s a kind of rolled egg with a little bit of sugar. It’s nothing fancy but it sure is delicious.

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Kenny actually makes it the night before because we both prefer it chilled.

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Kenny has lunch at the school, so I have tofu with a little ponzu and rice with some sweet chili sauce.

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Dinner is usually either chicken, pork, salmon, or curry. Every night I tell myself to take a picture and then promptly forget. Oops, maybe next time.