Monday, January 12, 2009


Kintaro-ame is a very old, traditional style of Japanese candy-making, formed by layers of candy rolled together into a long rope and then cut into thick, cylindrical slices. Each slice of candy features the face of Kintaro (Golden Boy), a Japanese folk hero (although it's not always Kintaro's ugly mug in the candy--it can be anything from animals to Santa Claus). Kintaro was a kid with purportedly Superman-like strength.

I picked up this Kintaro-ame at a street festival in Kyoto last night. As far as taste goes, it's nothing special--just sugary hard candy. But after you suck on the candy long enough, Kintaro's face becomes warped with little holes throughout it, which is mildly amusing.

When things are lacking individuality (suburban homes, Stepford wives, etc.), we call them "cookie-cutter". In Japan they call anything unoriginal "Kintaro-ame" because of all the identical faces you get out of one rope of candy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How I Fell in Love with Kyoto...Again

I'd be lying if I said my initial attraction to Kyoto wasn't spurred by my devotion to the book "Memoirs of a Geisha," a novel I fell so hopelessly in love with back in high school, that I read it every summer for at least five consecutive years. The movie was disappointing enough to free me of my obsession with the book, but when I decided to move to Japan, I chose the Osaka/Kyoto area instead of Tokyo, largely because I wanted to be close to this city that, in my mind, seemed almost mythical, it was so enchanting to me.

And so of course, as is often the case when you come face to face with your fantasy, my first trip to Kyoto was slightly disappointing. Though it's still a traditional Japanese city in comparison to Osaka or Tokyo, it looked like every other city in the world at first glance. Traffic, pollution, tall buildings, harassed pedestrians dodging homicidal was nothing special. But then I turned off on a small side street so that I could fish something out of my bottomless bag, when I heard fluttering silk and shuffling feet. I looked up to see a maiko (an apprentice geisha) a few mere steps from me. Maiko are difficult to spot in Kyoto, as they are notoriously private and many of the ones seen on the streets are actually tourists who have paid to dress up as a maiko for the day. This one gave me a close-mouthed smile (maiko rarely show their teeth because the white face paint makes them look yellow) without pausing, and before I could take the cap off my camera lens she had disappeared behind a sliding door, obviously skilled at dodging tourists. I did manage a few more glimpses of maiko as they scurried in and out of sliding doors, floating rather than walking. Geisha tend to entertain mostly at private parties, where only Japan’s most elite and influential men are invited to attend. Despite many Westerner’s (and some Japanese’s) impressions, a geisha’s occupation is not prostitution, but rather dancing, playing instruments, conducting tea ceremonies, and engaging in light, flirtatious conversation. At their height of popularity in the 20s, there were close to 80,000 geisha working in Japan. Now a dying art, their number is thought to be much closer to 1,000.

The sky began to show signs of dusk, as the sky blushed in shades of pink and orange, and Japan’s ubiquitous red paper lanterns lit up, storefronts glowed warmly inside, food vendors started up their smoky grills, and I fell in love with a new Kyoto, only slightly different from the one I had envisioned. The magic of this city seems to happen on the side streets, away from the bustling crowds, where sliding doors and the hushed whisperings of flowing silk hint at a culture that few ever see. Since that night, I've been to Kyoto several times, and I love it a little more each time. How on earth I could have ever seen it as a generic city is beyond me.

Today I went to Kennin-ji Temple, as well as a street fair where I proceeded to eat something from nearly every booth, and then had some sort of allergic reaction that left me feeling like I had swallowed a few hundred splinters. The food was amazing though, and well worth the allergic reaction. Click here for pictures.

And for pictures of my first trip to Kyoto, back in July, please click here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Japanese Snacks II

Edamame has become fairly popular in the U.S. as a healthy snack, but it is ubiquitous in izakayas (Japanese pubs). Edamame are baby soybeans in the pod, usually prepared by boiling them in salted water and served cold. You don't eat the pods, but instead pop the beans out by sliding the pod through your teeth. Edamame are low in calories and high in protein and fiber, so I like having them as a snack. However, one day I was eating edamame at work when a Japanese staff member saw me and asked, rather aghast, if I was drinking beer. I said that of course I wasn't. She then informed me that edamame is a beer snack. "So I can only eat edamame when I'm drinking?" I asked incredulously. She simply shrugged and walked away. I later discovered that there are lots of foods in Japan (ones that I happen to love), that label you as a drinker. Often when I list my favorite foods for my students, they say in a knowing voice, "Ohhhh, you like alcohol very much, I think." I suppose it would be the equivalent of me listing beer nuts and stale pretzels as my favorite foods.

Tsukemono is the Japanese word for pickled vegetables and is a popular, tasty accompaniment to most Japanese dishes, as well as a bento (Japanese lunchbox) staple. Lots of vegetables are pickled in Japan, though cabbage (pictured above), cucumbers, daikon radishes, and plums tend to be the most popular. They are crunchy, sometimes spicy, and add a nice bit of color to dishes. In America we often have a pickle spear, coleslaw, or parsley as a garnish, whereas in Japan they have tsukemono.

Ichigo daifuku is a delicious Japanese confection made with mochi, wrapped around yellow cake, sweet whipped cream, and a strawberry. Mochi has the strangest texture: incredibly soft, gooey, and slightly chewy. It's used like a fondant, and is essentially pounded glutinous rice (it's not sweet but can be sweetened). I adore it, and ichigo daifuku (a modern variation on daifukumochi), is my favorite mochi dessert. However, the texture of mochi is a little off-putting at first. It's a lot like what I imagine the flesh of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters would be like.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Let's Toast to a New Year

I admit I started the holiday season off in a "bah humbug" sort of mood. At 28, this was my first Christmas not celebrated with my family, and I was feeling achy and homesick, missing my family, my friends back home, my cat, our Christmas tree...everything. Not only that, but work was beginning to grate on me, and I had the perpetual feeling of a cold virus creeping up in my lungs, as student after student coughed in my face in tiny, unventilated rooms while I tried to teach them English's seemingly impossible grammar.

Christmas Eve I took the day off from work and spent the afternoon cleaning my room, doing laundry, packing, drinking hot cocoa (sent to me by Miller, Megs, and Jane, along with loads of other American goodies!), and watching movies on my laptop. I watched "The Apartment" at least three times that night, along with "Penelope," "The Wackness," and finishing up with "Elf," a movie I've seen an embarrassing number of times already, but one that never fails to cheer me up.

Christmas morning I took the shinkansen (bullet train) with Simon and Liz to Hakuba in Japan's Nagano Prefecture, a 3.5-hour train ride away. We were meeting about five co-workers there for a week-long skiing/snowboarding trip in the Japanese Alps. Gazing out the window at the piney, far-from-snow-covered mountains, I felt apathetic about the whole thing, and a little bitter about spending Christmas day on a train.

But then we arrived at Lodge Tabi Tabi, a sweet little place nestled in the woods. The snow was starting to fall in giant flakes, and our friends were there waiting for us, along with several other Tabi Tabi guests, all of them instant friends. I felt the scrooge in me slowly melting away. The lodge was warm and inviting, and because it was Christmas day, they decided to have a big ole nabe Christmas dinner with beer and sake. Nothing can replace Christmas with your family, but this was the next best thing.

Hakuba had been having an unseasonably warm winter, but on Christmas night the snow fell so enchantingly and so heavily, that by 11 o'clock, the entire lodge (mostly Aussies) was outside engaged in an epic snow fight. For many, it was their first white Christmas (since it's summer in Australia at Christmas time), and their delight in the three feet of powdery snow was infectious.

The rest of the week it snowed pretty constantly, and the days were filled with skiing/boarding, the evenings spent inside the warm lodge, playing games, laughing, bantering, greeting the constant stream of new guests flooding through the door. It was, hands down, my best week in Japan thus far, and repaired everything that was breaking down inside of me after hitting the 6-month slump of living in Japan. Even the day I got stranded in a gondola with Rich, Angela, and Andrew for an hour and a half, swinging dangerously over a deep valley in 45 kilometer winds, after which we had to ski down the mountain in the dark with the winds threatening to whip our faces off, and THEN had to wait in line for 2 hours while the wind continued to kick our butts into misery so that a bus could take us home...even then I considered it a great day and fell asleep grateful to have the experience, to have been trapped in the gondola with friends who made me laugh the entire time, despite how terrified I was.

On New Year's Eve, we all went to an Australian-owned bar called Tracks, ate a dinner of delicious meat pies, and rang in the New Year on the dance floor. There was no countdown, so the actual stroke of midnight came and went without our knowledge as we jumped up and down to bad electronic music with plastic champagne glasses sloshing in our hands.

My evening ended pretty perfectly, and when I went to bed, I was content, refreshed and ready to face Osaka the next day. The following afternoon, New Year's Day, I felt a smile goofily creeping up at the corners of my mouth as I rode the train back to Osaka. It may be the first New Year's Day that I didn't feel an ounce of the holiday blues. Instead of that dreaded another-year-of-my-life-has-passed-me-by sadness, I felt overwhelmed with what an amazing life I've had so far, and not just this year, but all 28 and a half years. Sure, some were better than others, but each lead up to this moment on the train. I thought about my friends scattered everywhere, all of them so close to my heart, I thought about my incredible family and their infinite patience with me as I wander (and sometimes stumble) through life, and I thought about the places I've seen, the places I hope to see in the future, the people I've met, and those I have yet to meet. While Japan's countryside blurred passed, the snow disappeared as we headed south, and the sun gently sank below the horizon, I had an epiphany--I realized I'm happy in my life. I always have been but was too stubborn to realize it, and not even the giant cockroach that greeted me in my bedroom when I got home to Osaka could ruin the feeling that I have a good life. A great life.

Click here to see pictures!
Pictures from Liz:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Momiji in Arashiyama

A few weeks ago I went to Arashiyama (western Kyoto) with some friends to view the autumn leaves. While we certainly appreciate the foilage in America, leaf-viewing isn't something we normally do, but in Japan they make a big deal about the changing colors. They call it momiji, and come October, an obnoxious amount of people (this year, myself included) go to places like Arashiyama to take a billion pictures. All those snapping cameras and urgent crowds may take away from the natural beauty of autumn in the mountains of Japan, but it was still a gorgeous sight to see.

The day was beautiful, if a little brisk. We had dry roasted sweet potatoes wrapped in brown paper and yudofu (hot tofu simmered in broth and topped with deliciousness) to warm our insides, and got plenty of exercise, as we hiked through the bamboo forest.

For pictures, please click here!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Our new president

I can't pretend I'm not ecstatic, but since I wouldn't want to see McCain supporters gloating had the tables been turned, I'll keep it short and say that I'm really grateful that Obama won and I feel very proud of my country right now. People were celebrating in the streets last night, myself included, and for the first time since coming here, when I told people I was American, they smiled. Here's a link with a photo of my friend Olivia once she saw the early polls in Chicago (thanks for passing this on, Melanie!). It's really a beautiful moment, and I think her expression speaks for all of us Obama supporters. So really, I don't need to say anything more.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Guch and too much Hooch

I have Tuesdays off, as do my roommates Masako and Tetsu, so we decided to have dinner at the Guch (our house) last Tuesday. Wanting to introduce me to a new Japanese dish, they cooked suki-yaki, which is beef slices simmered in soy sauce, sake, and sugar, along with other vegetables and tofu. Whisked raw egg is used as a dipping sauce for the meat and vegetables. Masako and Tetsu provided the delicious meal, while I provided the alcohol. We started off slow, just a few beers, but once our roommate Judy got home from work, we opened a couple of bottles of wine. And then our roommate Cat came home, and we broke out the rum. At one point in the night Cat, Judy, and I all put on Halloween costumes, and then somehow Judy convinced us it would be a good idea to put a mustache on Cat and a full beard on me (using eyeshadow). I looked like Yitzhak from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Judy just pretty much had eyeshadow all over her entire face. I'm certain pictures were taken and I have no doubt they'll resurface in some form of blackmail later in life. Regardless, it was a fun night and a rare moment for us residents of the Guch, as we rarely get a chance to hang out together due to our conflicting work schedules.